Former Covid testing tsar Sir John Bell ‘delighted’ to be made Companion of Honour

Sir John enters the elite order alongside Dame Anna Wintour and Sir Ian McEwan.
Sir John enters the elite order alongside Dame Anna Wintour and Sir Ian McEwan.

Sir John Bell, a leading scientist who served as Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 testing tsar during the pandemic, has spoken of his “delight” as he was elevated to a Companion of Honour for his services to medicine and life sciences.

The special award, granted to those who have made a major contribution to the arts, science, medicine or government, was founded in 1917 by George V.

Sir John is among three additions to the Order of the Companions of Honour, which is limited to just 65 people at a time.

He was joined by Dame Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, and novelist Sir Ian McEwan.

In a statement to the PA news agency, the Canadian-born immunologist said: “I was delighted to hear that I had been recognised with a King’s Honour for the work I have done in medicine and life sciences.

“It reflects the efforts of the very large number of people across the sector who have made this one of the UK’s strongest disciplines.”

A regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, Sir John held several high profile roles that helped shape the UK Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, including enabling the development of the testing platforms for lateral flow tests and helping to initiate the Covid-19 PCR testing programme nationally.

He was also a member of the expert advisory group to the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, which was created to speed up research to produce a coronavirus vaccine.

Sir John was among those who helped broker the deal with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to produce the Oxford vaccine – which is estimated to have saved more than six million lives globally in the first year of its roll-out.

A familiar face and voice of reason for many during the coronavirus pandemic, he was often sought out for his medical expertise.

When the news broke in November 2020 that the world was on the verge getting its first Covid-19 vaccine – developed Pfizer and BioNTech – he was was asked on BBC Radio 4 whether life would return to normal by spring of 2021.

His response was a resounding “yes, yes, yes” – which echoed around the world and lifted spirits.

“I am probably the first guy to say that but I will say that with some confidence,” he said at that time.

Sir John was born in Edmonton, Alberta, to a family of scientists.

His mother taught pharmacy at university while his father was a professor of haemotology and his grandfather a professor of anaesthetics.

Sir John studied medicine in Canada before heading to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship – one of the world’s most prestigious international scholarship programmes.

He eventually became a regius professor – a chair first created and sponsored by King Henry VIII in 1546 – in medicine at Oxford.

Outside of Covid-19, Sir John has been involved in a number of research programmes and sits on a wide range of advisory panels for public and private sector organisations in the UK and abroad.

He is also the founder of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, a research institute investigating the role genetics play in human diseases, and is chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Global Health Advisory Board.

In 2011, Sir John was appointed one of two UK Life Sciences Champions by then prime minister David Cameron.

He was knighted for services to medicine in 2009 and in 2015, was appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE).

Sir John has dual citizenship and currently lives with his wife in Wallingford, near Oxford.