Doing their bit: UK universities leap into action during Covid-19 crisis

The universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Southampton are fast developing new treatments, vaccines and technology that could help the world fight coronavirus

With the government’s chief scientific advisor warning last week that a vaccine for coronavirus is unlikely to be ready until 2021, attention has turned to what can be done now to fight back against the deadly pandemic.

That call to action has been heard in higher education and now several UK universities are racing forward with solutions that could save lives.

Coronavirus: a vaccine

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. But researchers warn “coronaviruses present a particular challenge to vaccine developers”.

Vaccines prepare the body’s immune system by spurring it to produce antibodies that recognise and attack dangerous viruses, but experts at Cambridge say the Covid-19’s infection methods make it harder to counter.

The virus is spherical and covered in ‘spike’ proteins that help it to invade human cells. After invading a cell, Covid-19 uses the invaded cell to replicate.

However, researchers revealed that coronavirus’s protein ‘spikes’ can even overwhelm its antibodies, invading vital immune cells in a phenomenon known as ‘vaccine-induced enhancement’.

“Rather than destroying the virus, these cells can then end up being reprogrammed by the viruses, exacerbating the immune response and making the disease much, much worse than it would otherwise be,” Prof Heeney explained.

According to the Cambridge professor, the phenomenon makes it harder to develop a vaccine.

“Researchers will want to be confident that their vaccine candidates are safe – that they don’t inadvertently make the disease worse – before they are tested in humans.

“We need a ‘big pharma’ partner to help us scale up our activities,” he 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.”

Coronavirus: new treatments for the most at risk

Right now, we need effective frontline treatments to give doctors the tools to treat the most vulnerable and to help patients recover quickly as the pressure on health systems mounts
– Prof Tom Wilkinson, University of Southampton

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 a trial which will involve 100 patients at Southampton and up to ten other NHS hospitals.

Patients will inhale a special formula that includes an antiviral protein, which is hoped will prevent severe lower respiratory tract illnesses. 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.

Professor Wilkinson said: “Covid-19 is presenting a major challenge to vulnerable patients, the health service and wider society. Whilst a vaccine will be key, that could be some time away.

“Right now, we need effective frontline treatments to give doctors the tools to treat the most vulnerable and to help patients recover quickly as the pressure on health systems mounts.”

Coronavirus: messaging apps and testing kits

A rapid testing technology for Covid-19 is being developed by scientists from the University of Oxford.

Existing kits take up to two hours, but the new test could deliver a result three times faster. Reseachers working on the project said the new method is so sensitive it can even detect coronavirus in the early stages of infection, potentially helping to reduce the spread of the disease.

The instant mobile app concept is very simple. If you are diagnosed with coronavirus, the people you’ve recently come into contact with will be messaged advising them to isolate
– Prof Christophe Fraser, University of Oxford

Prof Wei Huang, from the department of engineering science at the University of Oxford, said: “The beauty of this new test lies in the design of the viral detection that can specifically recognise SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) RNA and RNA fragments. The test has built-in checks to prevent false positives or negatives and the results have been highly accurate.”

Another team of researchers at the University of Oxford are providing information to European governments about the feasibility of a contact tracing mobile app that would identify infected people and their recent person-to-person contacts.

Prof Christophe Fraser, from Oxford’s Nuffield department of medicine, is leading the team of medical researchers and bioethics expert.

“Our analysis suggests that almost half of coronavirus transmissions occur in the very early phase of infection, before symptoms appear, so we need a fast and effective mobile app for alerting people who have been exposed. Our mathematical modelling suggests that traditional public health contact tracing methods are too slow to keep up with this virus,” Prof Fraser said.

“The instant mobile app concept is very simple. If you are diagnosed with coronavirus, the people you’ve recently come into contact with will be messaged advising them to isolate. If this mobile app is developed and deployed rapidly, and enough people opt-in to use such an approach, we can slow the spread of coronavirus and mitigate against devastating human, economic and social impacts,” he added.

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