University of Oxford responds to COVID-19 | Alison Beale

As Covid-19 continues its spread throughout the world, there is an urgent need for a concentrated international response. With borders closed and an apparent lack of coordinated global leadership in response to the pandemic, there is one place where there has been swift and sustained international action to combat the virus – universities. The UK is home to some of the world’s best institutions, and researchers up and down the country are working hard with colleagues throughout the world to put their knowledge and expertise to use in tackling this devastating virus.

With our huge Medical Sciences Division which has been ranked number one in the world in the Times Higher rankings for nine consecutive years, the University of Oxford has been quick to respond to the pandemic. At last count 113 Principal Investigators, 650 researchers, and a similar number of technical and support staff in Oxford have been working on Covid 19-related projects.

One of the projects to receive a share of the British government’s £20 million Covid 19 rapid response research funding announced at the end of March was Oxford’s project to develop a new vaccine for the virus led by Professor Sarah Gilbert. Her team at the University’s Jenner Institute initiated vaccine development as soon as the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus was released. The vaccine is made from a harmless virus, an adenovirus, which has been altered to produce the surface spike protein of the coronavirus after vaccination, to prime the immune system to recognise and attack the virus. Human trials of the vaccine are due to start in mid April and Professor Gilbert has said she is 80% confident the vaccine will work and that it could be ready even as early as September 2020. The project includes research to develop manufacturing processes in parallel with the trials, so that if they prove successful, the vaccine could be made available in record speed.

Another Oxford project to receive funding from the same rapid response government investment is Professor Peter Horby’s project to conduct the first randomised controlled trials to test if existing or new drugs can help patients hospitalised with confirmed Covid-19. This is said to be the fastest-growing clinical trial in medical history with 2,700 Covid-19 patients already enrolled and the number set to grow. Three treatments that have been recommended by a panel of experts will be tested on the patients: the lopinavir-ritonavir combination to treat HIV; dexamethasone, a steroid that reduces inflammation; and hydroxychloroquine, the malaria medicine. Other treatments are expected to be added to these.

Oxford’s Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health has substantial research groups based in Thailand, Vietnam and Kenya as well as in Oxford. These groups are working closely on the projects. The team in Thailand for example as well as conducting clinical trials, are also modelling the outbreak of Covid-19 in Asia and working on optimising critical care in low resource settings. The team in Kenya at the KEMRI Wellcome Research Programme are keen to work with colleagues in the Jenner Institute on early testing with the aspiration of ensuring the vaccine can be implemented without delay in Africa when it is ready.

The response to Covid-19 is not just limited to researchers in the medical sciences – our engineers are busy developing ventilators, testing kits and tracing apps. The OxVent team led by professors from Oxford and King’s College London have created a prototype ventilator specifically designed for the sort of large-scale production needed to combat Covid-19. They developed the design for the new ventilator and won government backing all within the space of two weeks. If the prototype passes the required MHRA safety tests, it will soon move into production. Elsewhere, social scientists in the University have been modelling and analysing societal reactions and adaptations.

All of these initiatives demonstrate how universities are working collaboratively and internationally and with a single purpose: to translate academic research swiftly for the benefit of society and humankind.

In spite of the breathtaking speed with which these projects have taken shape, they will inevitably need a certain amount of time before any results can be rolled out at scale in our societies. In the meantime what can we do? The advice of another Oxford scholar, Nathaniel Hodges, who was a medical doctor at the time of the bubonic plague in London in 1665, comes to mind and still sounds remarkably applicable almost 400 years later:
“THE timely Separation also of the infected from the well, is absolutely necessary to be done; because the most sure Way of spreading it, is letting the sick and well converse together.”

Social distancing. Stay safe and well.
Alison Beale
University of Oxford Japan Office
15 April 2020