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How Nottingham Is Helping to Track and Tackle Coronavirus

18 February 22 words: George White
illustrations: Andre Santana

We take a look at the role Nottingham’s scientists have played, and will continue to play, in tackling COVID-19 - with experts from both the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University helping to analyse the virus, trial vaccines and protect the most vulnerable since the start of the pandemic… 

Since the very beginning of this miserable mess known as the pandemic, Nottingham has played a key role in understanding and overcoming COVID, with our scientists using their skills and knowledge to track, analyse and tackle the virus. From becoming one of the first cities to make progress on the development of a vaccine to leading studies that could help to protect the nation’s most vulnerable people, these experts have made - and continue to make - impressive progress in bringing an end to this bleak period of our existence. 

Nottingham’s coronavirus response started way back in March 2020, when several ‘COVID detectives’ were drafted into a national consortium to study the DNA sequencing of the virus. The team at the University of Nottingham’s DeepSeq facility, which has previously studied viruses such as Zika, were tasked with analysing coronavirus to provide an insight into its behaviours, helping to inform the decision-making of leading public health experts and hospitals throughout the country. 

By August last year, the consortium had analysed over 10,000 samples, leading to vital observations on the transmission of the virus. In the words of genomics specialist Professor Matt Loose, this research “helped to track the lineage of variants and enabled hospitals to understand whether COVID could spread from patient to patient”, providing much-needed guidance at a time when very little was known about the virus and its potential impact. 

When the pandemic first began, you’re worried there’s nothing you can do about it. So to be able to contribute has been fantastic

Looking back over the past two years, Prof Loose says, “Like many of us, when the pandemic first began, you’re worried there’s nothing you can do about it. So to be able to contribute has been fantastic. Getting to use the expertise we have in Nottingham to help both this city and the wider area has been a real honour.” 

This research process hasn’t always been a simple one, though, with the unprecedented nature and sheer scale of the task at hand making things difficult both mentally and scientifically. “There have been a lot of late nights and a lot of working at weekends, just doing what you need to do,” Prof Loose explains. “The impact on hospitals in the early part of the pandemic was horrendous to see, and it’s good to know that’s changed with the vaccine. That’s not to say there is no impact now, but it’s not the same as it was twelve months ago.” 

The jab itself is something Nottingham has also helped to develop. In a joint effort between the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University, planning for clinical trials of a DNA vaccine to prevent coronavirus began as early as August 2020. By making use of local experts in schools ranging from NTU’s John van Geest Cancer Research Centre to UoN’s Biodiscovery Institute, around half a dozen of the city’s brightest minds got to work on what they believed could be the first step towards the end of the pandemic. 

“This exciting research programme highlights the capabilities and skills that are available in Nottingham,” NTU’s Professor Graham Pockley said at the time, with the collaborative approach of the city’s key institutions helping to kickstart trials when the prospect of finding a cure to the virus still felt like a distant dream. 

Nottingham - channelling the trademark fighting spirit that defines the city - will continue to lead the ongoing battle against COVID

While several forms of the COVID vaccine have now been rolled out to well over 50m people in the UK, there is still a long way to go in the fight against the virus - and Nottingham will continue to play a major role. This is particularly the case when it comes to protecting those most at risk, with the University of Nottingham leading an investigation into whether those who rely on immune-suppressing medicines can maximise the protection they receive from booster vaccines. By analysing whether a short break from patients’ usual treatment for issues like rheumatoid arthritis can help to increase the effectiveness of boosters after they’ve been administered, UoN could help to protect many of those who have been forced to shield for lengthy periods over the last two years. 

Professor Abhishek Abhishek, an expert in rheumatology who is leading this research, explains how the project came about: “When the vaccines came it was all good news but many people asked me if they should stop their treatment if they’re having a vaccination, so they could get even better protection. While vaccines do already help people on immuno-suppressant drugs, there was a study that suggested that stopping treatment for two weeks after the jab could give people even better protection. I was aware of this study but we didn’t really have concrete answers for people’s questions, so we wanted to properly look into whether this could make the vaccine even more effective.” 

In a process that may take up to two years, Prof Abhishek and his team will recruit over 500 participants to try and provide a definitive and long-term answer to this question, at a time when regular boosters may become the new norm. Within this country-spanning, multidisciplinary group is a certain Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the no-nonsense Deputy Chief Medical Officer - returning to lead UoN’s Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences in May - who has provided a clear voice of reason within a government that has often seemed anything but reasonable. 

According to Prof Abhishek, this ability to bring together such a talented group of experts, from virologists in London to statisticians in Oxford, as well as the high quality of its own studies, is what makes UoN such an influential establishment. “We are a leading institution for medical research, especially clinical trials,” he says, “and we have emerging and established links that meant we could develop an effective partnership between lots of great minds.” 

So, just like it has since the very start of the pandemic, Nottingham - channelling the trademark fighting spirit that defines the city - will continue to lead the ongoing battle against COVID.

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