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Research Developments and COVID-19 in the UK

by on 2020/03/24

We are facing an unprecedented situation across the world with the COVID-19 pandemic. It is becoming very real for us in the U.K. In the last few days we have seen a significant rise in those ill with COVID-19 symptoms and deaths that are becoming substantial in number. Given the pattern of spread of the virus in Italy and other nearby European countries and the recent ‘lock-down’ of the UK it is easy to see why people are feeling panicked.

Let’s focus on something positive. Behind the scenes, in Universities across the UK, researchers specialising in infectious diseases are working around the clock not only to understand the virus by deciphering its genetic code, but to produce and test vaccines, and also how best to deliver treatments. Surprisingly there is relatively little media coverage of this work in light of the fact that every media outlet is almost solely covering COVID-19. Brexit and Scottish Independence seem almost forgotten. There is piece upon piece on the mass daily life disruption, movement of people, stock-piling and economic cost of COVID-19. These are all central worries to our daily lives of course, but it would be good to see more coverage of the science.

Let’s take a look at a number of studies that have recently been funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Department of Health and Social Care through the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). Importantly the research has been co-ordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other funders to ensure the research teams are not duplicating other projects.

The projects cover testing of a vaccine, and developing therapies and improving understanding of how to treat COVID-19.  Let’s focus in on two of the studies funded.

Dr Sarah Gilbert and her team at the University of Oxford began vaccine development for COVID-19 as soon as the genetic information about the virus was released.  The team have now received funding from UKRI and NIHR to support testing and manufacturing of the new vaccine, and then to carry out clinical trials in people. Testing will first be done with adults aged 18-50 before extension to children and older adults. A vaccine candidate has now been identified and it is hoped it will be able to prime the immune system to recognise and attack this type of coronavirus. The Guardian and the Daily Mail has covered this work in an informative way and with language accessible to the general public. Other coverage by the Express included a sensationalist headline “scientist confirms rapid vaccine arrival in huge breakthrough”, but beyond the headline the coverage was informative with the reporter detailing why the researchers may be quicker at developing and testing a vaccine than the WHO estimate of 18 months. The article then goes on to describe how the research team had already been working on a vaccine against a distant relative of the virus known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) that was first reported in 2012 and had been identified as a likely cause for future epidemics.

Significant funding was given to a research team led by Dr Kenneth Baillie at the Medical School at the University of Edinburgh and involves researchers from 6 different UK Universities.  The team will collect samples and data from patients focusing on what is the best way to diagnose COVID-19, who is at the highest risk of severe illness, and what is happening in individuals with the disease that help or harm them. As the grant funding was only formally announced on Monday March 23rd there has only been local coverage of this work to date.

It will be exciting to see the developments from all of the projects funded over the coming weeks. As developments occur and are communicated it would be great to see a significant focus on these research projects with the media playing a crucial role in providing accurate information to the public. Not only is this science crucial to help end this pandemic it would be good to see children and young people take a positive focus on what we can do to solve this situation moving away from the spiralling anxiety they are being exposed to.

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