Coronavirus: how UK universities are helping the nation

Staff and students from across the higher education sector have donated their time, expertise, equipment and facilities to support the UK

The coronavirus outbreak in the UK has prompted an enormous mobilisation of people and resources – and every university is helping in whatever way it can.

Here are just some of the examples from across the higher education sector:

The University of Bristol announced on Tuesday 31 March that more than 220 of its final year medical students will qualify early in order to allow them to help the NHS in its hour of need. It became one of the first medical schools in the country to accelerate qualifications because of Covid-19.

Elsewhere in the south west of England, more than 50 medicine students at the University of Exeter have asked to graduate early so they can qualify as junior doctors and assist NHS hospitals in Devon and Somerset. All will join the Health and Care Professions Council’s temporary Covid-19 register, which will allow them to start practising.

The University of the West of England‘s Exhibition and Conference Centre converted into a 300-bed temporary hospital, similar to the other Nightingale hospitals in London, Birmingham and Manchester. University accommodation on the surrounding Frenchay campus will be used to house NHS staff working at the new Covid-19 hospital.

It is not just doctors, nurses and biomedical scientists that can help – staff at the Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design at London Metropolitan University have sewn nearly 500 face masks over the past week for Whittington Hospital and Hammersmith Hospital. The team made the masks following closely the guidelines laid out by the NHS, and will continue sewing the vital safety accessories for other London maternity hospitals.

A new rapid diagnostic test has been developed by the University of Cambridge and is being deployed at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in the city. The SAMBA II machine can be used by healthcare workers at the point of care, in order to cut waiting times and direct those infected to dedicated wards. The test is adapted from an on-the-spot HIV test. More machines are being bought and will be distributed around the country.

A breathing aid, known as Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, has been developed by UCL and approved for use by the NHS. Experts reverse-engineered a device which has been used elsewhere in the world and developed a UK-approved product suitable for mass production.

Coronavirus: how UK universities are helping the nation SAMBA II
Staff at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge are now using the new SAMBA II machines.

Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) are pioneering a portable coronavirus testing kit. The kit works by sequencing the genetic material (RNA) from a throat swab sample using a rapid three-minute extraction. The UEA is also working with 3D printer companies to make ventilator parts at speed.

Project lead Dr Aram Saeed, from UEA’s School of Pharmacy, said: “It’s still very early days for this project, but the response so far has been amazing. It is very much a steep learning curve, but we have a fantastic team of researchers and PhD students working on this”. UEA scientists are also producing 170 litres of hand santiser gel a day!

Queen’s University Belfast has found an innovative purpose for its 3D printers – manufacturing protective masks for the city’s NHS trust. The equipment is already used to make catheters, microneedles and tablets, and the School of Pharmacy has now designed a low-cost visor which can be manufactured in the same way. In the first week of production, 20 masks visors were shipped.

The university’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering is also pursuing high volume production of face shields using laser cutting technology of polymer sheeting.

Engineers at the University of Sheffield have had the same idea and are using the 3D printers at the university’s iForge Makerspace to manufacture face shields. The team has set up a Just Giving page and is looking for help acquiring plastics and distributing visors around South Yorkshire.

Coronavirus: how UK universities are helping the nation University of Worcester
Kit has been donated to NHS trusts across the country, including this donation from the University of Worcester.

More than 25 Coventry University PhD students and research staff have volunteered to help University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire (UHCW) with testing patients for coronavirus in the coming weeks. The university has drawn up a list of equipment it could provide to the NHS to help it increase the number of tests it can carry out. Many of the volunteers are overseas students who cannot get home and want to help, the university says.

Nearly 50 paramedic students from Coventry have taken up positions with the West Midlands Ambulance Service to help frontline ambulance staff. Coventry is also a major trainer of student nurses – many of whom are now at work in local NHS trusts.

In Yorkshire, some 400 nursing and healthcare students from the University of Huddersfield are off to serve in NHS hospitals and GP surgeries around the county.

To help Public Health England achieve the government’s target for testing, Teesside University has donated specialist equipment – including kits which can help scale up RNA extraction – to North Tees and Hartlepool Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. The university’s National Horizons Centre (NHC) is offering bench and lab space as well as specialist scientists and PCR machines to the Trust.

Coronavirus-how-UK-universities-are-helping-the-nation-Teesside
Many universities are donating testing facilities to the NHS, including Teesside University’s National Horizons Centre.

The University of Birmingham is leading a central analysis centre, called PIONEER, under the direction of Dr Elizabeth Sapey. The Health Data Research Hub for Acute Care will collect and analyse information from nearly 150 health trusts on the spread and development of the virus. The university’s car park, nursing facilities and hotel have all been made available to the NHS, and university workers are coordinating the collection of PPE.

More than 230 final-year medical students at the University of Liverpool have volunteered to help the NHS. Together with the University of Edinburgh and Imperial College London, Liverpool University has also received a £5m grant from the Medical Research Council to undertake coronavirus research. The grant includes £1 million funding to establish the Outbreak Laboratory at Liverpool, led by Prof Calum Semple. One of the new lab’s biggest tasks is to establish why the virus affects people in different ways.

Edinburgh also estimates that 200 of its newly qualified graduates can now join the NHS and is working with the Medical Schools Council to help students progress to positions as soon as is feasible.

Coronavirus: how UK universities are helping the nation Birmingham
Like many other HEIs, the University of Birmingham is researching the virus to help inform the NHS’s response.

UCL, Queen’s, Birmingham, Exeter, Edinburgh, Cambridge and Liverpool – along with the universities of Cardiff, Glasgow, Nottingham, Oxford and Sheffield ­– are all part of a £20 million project called the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium. Scientists will monitor changes in the virus at a national scale to understand how the virus is spreading and whether different strains are emerging.

Imperial has also partnered with the University of Kent on a project to develop antibodies that target coronavirus cells, with the hope it could become a new therapy for the disease. The antibodies were identified in people who were infected during the SARS outbreak in 2003, which was caused by a similar coronavirus. These antibodies might prepare the body’s immune system to fight a similar infection. More than 30 academics, postdoctoral researchers and PhD students from Kent have volunteered to help perform testing at hospitals in the county.

Universities in Nottingham have supplied 16 machines to support local coronavirus testing. The machines – 13 from the University of Nottingham and three from Nottingham Trent University – can together perform an estimated 20,000 tests a day. More than 600 students from the University of Nottingham have volunteered to help local hospitals and support NHS staff and researchers.

Coronavirus: how UK universities are helping the nation Queen's Belfast
Many universities, including Queen’s University Belfast and Southampton University, are trying to devise ways of mass-producing new types of personal protective equipment for the NHS.

A project to devise a battery-operated, hand-held device to rapidly test people for Covid-19 is underway at Brunel University London, Lancaster University and the University of Surrey. The science behind the device has been tested in the  Philippines  to check chickens for viral infections. The test can determine if someone has coronavirus in 30 minutes. Samples don’t need to go to a laboratory because the smartphone-enabled device can test six people at once at a cost of around £4 per person.

A professor from Lancaster University is part of an NHS England Covid-19 taskforce for staff support and wellbeing. Prof Michael West, from Lancaster University Management School (LUMS), is an organisational psychologist and has dedicated much of his academic career to working with the NHS. His expertise is informing how the heath service supports the mental health of its employees, which will be tested by the pandemic.

The University of Cambridge confirmed that a team of researchers at the laboratory of viral zoonotics, led by Prof Jonathan Heeney, is working towards a vaccine for the Covid-19 coronavirus. Researchers warn “coronaviruses present a particular challenge to vaccine developers” because the Covid-19’s infection methods make it harder to counter.

Researchers at the University of Southampton are trialling an inhaled drug that could protect the most at risk from the worst of Covid-19’s symptoms. Tom Wilkinson, professor of respiratory medicine in the faculty of medicine, is leading the trial. Patients will inhale a special formula that includes an antiviral protein – those at high risk, such as asthmatics or the elderly, produce low levels of this naturally occurring antiviral protein, so researchers hope the drug could boost their body’s defences.

Southampton is also responsible for a new personal respirator that is being trialled for use by frontline health workers. The prototype consists of a fabric hood and a plastic visor. A small portable unit delivers clean air through a special filter from a battery-powered fan pack mounted on a belt.

The prototype uses off-the-shelf component and has received positive feedback from doctors, nurses and patients in initial demonstrations at the hospital.

Some researchers at the University of Oxford have developed a new test, which is capable of giving results in just half an hour – over three times faster than the current method. The test is capable of identifying patients in the early stages of infection.

Twenty-four final year medical students from Oxford University have volunteered to join the NHS effort to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Three ground-breaking projects at Oxford have received £4.7m of funding.

Prof Sarah Gilbert is leading vaccine development trials. Her team began developing a vaccine months ago, and have devised a harmless virus, called an adenovirus, which mimics certain features of the Covid-19 virus. Trials will test whether this harmless virus can successfully prime the immune system to fight off the novel coronavirus.

Prof Peter Horby is researching the effectiveness of current drugs on coronavirus. The first two therapies to be tested will be two HIV drugs. The research team’s ambitious aim is to have data available to inform patient treatment within three months.

Dr Sandy Douglas is researching vaccine manufacturing capabilities for the solution Prof Gilbert is working on.

Coronavirus: how UK universities are helping the nation Sunderland
Nursing students across the country have volunteered to work on the frontline just days after completing their studies. Sunderland University says 40 of its nurses are now at work in the NHS.

The University of Sunderland announced that 40 of its nursing students have been fast-tracked to jobs in hospitals across the North East. The group completed their three-year Adult Nursing programme at the university last week and immediately began working on the frontline.

With space in hospitals at a premium, the University of Northampton is offering 300 vacant rooms at the Spencer Perceval halls to hospital patients and staff that do not have coronavirus.

The University of Worcester has sent its nursing and healthcare training equipment to the Worcestershire Royal Hospital – and staff and nursing students are ready to be deployed. The university’s in-house nursery will provide care for the children of essential workers.

Keele University has made its first donation of personal protective equipment (PPE) to 17 local GP surgeries, from Blythe Bridge to Kidsgrove. More gloves, aprons, visors and masks are on the way, the university says. Similar donations are being made by Derby University, which has sent goggles, gloves, surgical masks, protective suits and cleaning materials to frontline hospitals across Derbyshire.

Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) has delivered medical technology, including two ventilators and six portable ventilators, to the Mid and South Essex University Hospitals Group. The kit also includes defibrillators, cardiac monitoring devices and temporary ventilators. The ARU has sent stacks of personal protective equipment (PPE) from its campus in Chelmsford.

More than 1,100 items of PPE­ – including masks, glasses and covers – and more than 20,000 gloves have been donated by Warwick University to University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust. The medical laboratories at Warwick are available for testing work, and chemistry labs have begun manufacturing hand sanitiser.

From the University of Sussex, 16 students and staff have volunteered to help support hospital virology testing teams.


Read more: Coronavirus: medical students ride to the rescue

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