How UK universities are contributing to the fight against COVID-19

  • Pavankumar Kamat
  • UK Medical News
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Several universities in the UK have directed their research efforts to help fight the spread of COVID-19. In the midst of the nation facing a lockdown, researchers have been working tirelessly on some of the key initiatives discussed below.

Genome sequencing

Scientists at The University of Sheffield in collaboration with the virology team at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals have successfully sequenced their first two whole genomes of COVID-19 from UK patients. The sequence data, which have been transferred to international viral sequence database GISAID will provide key information to track the spread and evolution of the infection. After their initial success, the team is expected to sequence more samples in the days to come. Dr Thushan de Silva, who is leading the research, said: "Collecting and sharing standardised global clinical data and samples on patients infected with coronavirus is a critical process in how the health research community can contribute to our understanding outbreaks of new infectious diseases."

Rapid testing

Researchers at the University of Oxford’s Engineering Science Department and the Oxford Suzhou Centre for Advanced Research (OSCAR) have developed a rapid testing method for COVID-19. The test uses a viral detection mechanism to specifically recognise SARS-CoV-2 RNA and RNA fragments and can provide results in just 30 minutes. The rapid testing does not require any complicated instruments but only a simple heat-block to maintain a constant temperature for RNA reverse transcription and DNA amplification.

Vaccine development

The Oxford Vaccine Group and Oxford's Jenner Institute have identified a vaccine candidate for COVID-19 and are making swift progress towards the first clinical testing phase. They have chosen the chimpanzee adenovirus vaccine vector (ChAdOx1) as it is capable of eliciting a strong immune response from a single dose and is a non-replicating virus. The team has previously developed a vaccine for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome using similar technology.

A research team at the University of Cambridge under the leadership of Prof Jonathan Heeney is working towards developing a vaccine candidate against COVID-19. DIOSynVax, Prof Heeney's spin-out company in collaboration with Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm, is using computer modelling of the virus’s structure to identify vital spike proteins on the virus’s armour that will form a part of the vaccine. Prof Heeney said: "Our vaccine designs are made so that they can be easily integrated into any proprietary vaccine platform that a pharmaceutical company may have ready."

Modelling studies

Modelling of intervention timings by mathematicians at the University of Sussex indicates that in order to stop health services from being overwhelmed, policymakers should implement early interventions and aim for two small peaks in infections, rather than one large peak. Francesco Di Lauro, one of the team members, said: "Our models address the biggest question facing the world right now: what should governments be doing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic? If governments want to make a drastic intervention, they probably only have one chance."

Another modelling study from the Imperial College London suggests two possible scenarios based on the intensity of different interventions. In the first scenario, interventions could retard but not completely interrupt the spread of infection. This would substantially reduce the burden on health services and protect the most vulnerable population. In the second scenario, more intensive interventions could interrupt transmission and bring down cases to low levels; however, cases are likely to rise once the interventions are relaxed.

Contact tracing

A team of infectious disease and bioethics experts at the University of Oxford is working closely with the UK and other European governments to explore the feasibility of developing an instant contact tracing mobile application which can be quickly and widely deployed, while maintaining necessary ethical considerations. The application works on a simple concept that individuals who have come into contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 will be alerted through the application and advised to isolate themselves. Dr David Bonsall from the team at Oxford said: "If we can securely deploy this technology, the more people that opt-in, the faster the epidemic will stop, and the more lives can be saved."

While the contribution of the frontline health care workers remains invaluable, the efforts of these researchers also deserve loud applause!