Tracking down John Bell: how the case of the Oxford professor exposes a transparency crisis in government

Paul Thacker:

As testing and the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine are hailed as UK pandemic successes, why won’t Oxford University or the government disclose the “long list” of financial interests of a high profile researcher at the centre of both? Paul D Thacker investigates

Since the covid-19 outbreak began early last year, John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, has held high profile roles in the UK government’s epidemic response while also working with AstraZeneca on the vaccine.

But both Oxford and the government have refused to disclose Bell’s financial interests after The BMJ filed freedom of information (FOI) requests. More alarmingly, it appears that the government is referring media enquiries about Bell through the Cabinet Office and is scrutinising a reporter for The BMJ as it has other reporters it finds troublesome.1The BMJ has been unable to gain either direct contact with Bell or contact through his employer, Oxford University, despite multiple attempts.

The Daily Mail reported on Bell’s financial ties in September 2020, noting that he had £773 000 (€893 000; $1.1m) worth of shares in the pharmaceutical company Roche.2 The newspaper published the story after Roche sold the government £13.5m of antibody tests, which Public Health England later found to be unreliable. Bell had headed the National Covid Testing Scientific Advisory Panel and chaired the government’s test approvals group, but he told the Mail that he had no role in the purchase and that he had disclosed to the government “a long list of my interests.” The government and Oxford University’s failure to be open about Bell’s financial ties make it impossible for the public to know what, if any, interests the professor has when influencing key decisions about which of the many covid-19 tests the UK should purchase.

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