Janet Hemingway Interview: ‘We’re Going To Have To Live With Covid Forever’

Professor Janet Hemingway laughs a lot. In fact, I can see that she’s laughing before I can hear her through the Microsoft Teams meeting that’s been set up for us to chat. As I fumble for an elusive “unmute” button I can see Prof Hemingway chuckling away, clad in a Princeton University hoodie and hands-free headset, from her home in the Cheshire countryside. Since March 2020, she now spends the majority of her time working from home.

“We used to have to work quite hard to persuade people that infectious diseases were important,” she muses, “but we kind of don’t need to work quite so hard now.”

It has, she concedes, been “fairy crazy”. Hemingway left her role as director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) — she describes it as one of the jewels in the crown of Liverpool — in 2018 with the intention to “have fun with the science” for the remainder of her career.

Within a year she was putting together a consortium of NHS and academic partners with the private sector, after the government advertised a programme inviting bids for research projects. Her idea, presciently, was for a consortium that could speed up the delivery of vaccines, drugs and diagnostics. She won the bid in March 2020. The Infection Innovation Consortium (iiCON) — a kind of Q branch for infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance and emerging pandemics — was created.

“It struck me that if I got all of those organisations working together, we could be much greater than the sum of our parts to the benefit not only of the city, but to humanity basically,” she says. “I thought if I can pull that consortium together from the North West, I think we’ve got something that could really be world beating there.”

Janet Hemingway. Photo: Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

When the consortium started, everyone knew Covid-19 was “coming big time,” and the new organisation pivoted its energies towards the novel disease. Later in 2020 they became involved in the trials for the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, as well as helping in the development of the lateral flow and PCR tests.
iiCon is now working on new Covid treatments, which she says the public will become more familiar with over the course of the year: mouthwashes, surface cleaners and devices to monitor Covid in wastewater from virus hotspots are three examples she mentions.

“I went from a standing start of thinking ‘yeah, I’ll do a little bit of science, rather than run an organisation’ to, by September of this year, having a portfolio of activities that was in excess of £180m, and delivery of 2.5bn units of different products to consumers and patients.”

She pauses, then laughs. “So I’ve had a quiet year.”

Hemingway is an early riser (she gets up at 5.30 every morning to muck out horses, feed the cats and walk the dogs) and that’s just as well given her workload. She still works at the LSTM alongside her role as founding Director of iiCON; she’s a senior technical advisor on Neglected Tropical Diseases for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and she also founded the Innovative Vector Control Consortium.

She would like the city region to be recognised as a centre of excellence for infection research and development, and iiCon has attracted about £3bn worth of investment to the region by 2030. “It means lots of jobs, but I also wanted those to be jobs that people in the city felt that they could apply for and career aspirations that the kids wanted to go for as well,” she says.

Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Photo by Rodhullandemu, released on the Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Much of the work she coordinates has an impact across the country and the world, but she also thinks there could be local benefits. “I think that it should be good for the local population, because we do have a population where the health isn’t as great as it might be,” she says. “You’ve got various issues there, including some that link with infectious diseases. And so we’re obviously working with the local NHS local populations to try and improve local health.”

I put it to Hemingway that Liverpool’s relatively low take-up of Covid vaccinations must be frustrating, given the city’s importance in tackling infectious diseases. “Liverpool has got underlying issues with poverty. It’s got underlying issues with different ethnic groups that tend to sit in their own little bubbles, if you like. And within those groups they tend to access their health care less effectively than other groups do.”

She seems to be the perfect person to ask the question that many of us have in the back of our minds right now: when is this pandemic going to end? “We’re going to have to live with Covid forever; this is never ever going to go out of the human population.”

The objective is to get the disease down to the point where it is no worse than the standard flu. “And the only way you will do that is either lots and lots of people have to get it and die from it, which is not what we want to do, or we put something in place that actually reduces the amount of transmission — that’s clearly the vaccines.”

She thinks the government’s response to the pandemic “could have been better” and has harsher words for some specific decisions (stopping air travel from South Africa when it was already clear that the variant was already within the country was “crude stupidity”). “If we’d have been a little bit more ready, before this one, we maybe could have stopped it becoming a global pandemic. And so we don’t want another one in my lifetime, certainly, but I would like not to have another one in anybody else’s lifetime. That’s a big ask, but I think if we’re really clever about the way that we put different things in place, both surveying what’s going on, and then responding very quickly. We can do that.”

And we can do it on Merseyside. “By building up a big area of expertise, we can tackle those infectious diseases that are there, year in year out, but we can also respond very quickly to anything new that might suddenly come about, and do it more effectively than we have done with Covid.”

Dr Jon Hague of Chair of the Innovation Board for the Liverpool City Region.

Something people who have worked with Hemingway pinpoint in her character is her grasp of detail and an ability not just to communicate clearly, but get others invested in what she has to say. Doctor Jon Hague, speaking in his role as Chair of the Innovation Board for the Liverpool City Region (Hague is also a Vice President at Unilever), told me about working with Hemingway. “She’s tough, right? She’s absolutely a tour de force. When she does need to stand firm and draw the line and say, no, she’ll fight tooth and nail. She digs in when she needs to and she gets a lot of respect for that.”

He says Hemingway is a rare beast in science. “She’s one of these people who is extremely good at navigating the politics of universities and institutions and governments,” he says. “But he’s also an absolutely brilliant scientist. People in science tend to be one or the other; Janet brings both of them together.”

Hague has worked with Hemingway on bringing iiCon to fruition and has experienced her “brutal efficiency”. “She’s really kind to people but like any good operator she’ll get it all lined up before the meetings. She’s like a great chess player, she’s got all the moves made. And it’s all sorted out when you go into the meeting: checkmate!”

It’s perhaps Hemingway’s steeliness that has seen her referred to as “that damn woman” by opponents — a reminder of the gender imbalance in the higher echelons of science. iiCon’s team may be all-female (“serendipitously”, says Hemingway), but the fact is while more women than men enter science, it drops off alarmingly beyond postdoctoral level. “If you look at the professorial level, I think we’re 10% female and 90% male,” she says.

Either way, the iiCon team is getting noticed. “The government is coming in February to see what’s working in Liverpool because they can see it happening with what we’re doing and how quickly it’s grown and how quickly it’s had an impact. And so they can see that there’s some fairy dust in there.”

iiCon and the LSTM are just two, relatively small, elements in the sprawling, seemingly ever-developing Knowledge Quarter that houses the University of Liverpool and Royal Liverpool University Hospital. Hemingway says the critical mass and geographical closeness has benefited Liverpool enormously. “Alongside the massive numbers of students to the city, which helps drive the economy, you’ve got the research activities tying in with the health systems, the engineering companies, the people in the maritime areas.”

She cites the rollout of 5G networks in Liverpool as pioneering (along with her role in promoting vaccines and her work with the Bill Gates Foundation, she’s a conspiracy theorist’s worst nightmare) but says the city needs to carry on innovating for its own good.

“That way, we suck in inward investment,” she says, “we suck in the sort of people who are interested in these industries, so we create better jobs for people. And if you’ve got good urban employment, everything else tends to flow through. Better jobs mean better housing and better health. And so lots and lots of the other problems that you see in cities that are deprived start to go away, because you’ve got an economy that is booming.”

It’s obvious from our conversation that Hemingway is committed to the city. “Normally I’d spend 10-12 years somewhere and then move on; I’ve now been here more than 20 years, and I haven’t yet moved on, I’m not going to.” She gets two or three job offers a month from all around the world. “And I can happily say ‘No, not interested’. Because I’m well anchored here.”

We’re wrapping up our talk, early on a day shortly before Christmas. What else has she got on after this? Hemingway lists a meeting with iiCon colleagues, a call with the Northern Health Sciences Alliance, catching up with a Japanese company to discuss bed nets for malaria control and some paperwork to finish off for a quarterly report. Plus the dogs and horses need exercising.

Not much, then. “No. I always sit twiddling my thumbs,” she says laughing.

• Original written for Liverpool Post. Click here to read the original article: ‘We’re going to have to live with Covid forever’

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