Joining the fight

The University of Liverpool responds to the COVID-19 pandemic

At the start of 2020, few amongst us could have predicted what the next twelve months would bring. As the pandemic took hold, many of our remarkable clinicians and final-year medical students volunteered to help fight COVID-19 on the front line. Staff and students got to grips with online teaching and learning, while our world-renowned researchers focused on helping to deliver a coordinated response to the virus. Now, one year on, the University is again at the centre of the response to build a better future for the Liverpool City Region.

A sleeping giant

In actuality, the University’s efforts against COVID-19 started well before the pandemic began. Since 2014, the University has hosted the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), Health Protection Research Unit (HPRU) in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections, in partnership with the University of Oxford, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) and Public Health England (PHE). Previously, the HPRU was heavily involved in fighting Ebola. In January 2020, the Unit diverted its efforts into supporting the activation of ISARIC (the International Severe Acute Respiratory and emerging infection Consortium): a ‘sleeping giant’ of a programme which is ready for just such emergencies. Within days, all 260 acute hospitals in the UK were ready for the first COVID-19 patients.

The HPRU and Centre for Excellence in Infectious Diseases Research (CEIDR) teamed up with local NHS Trusts and the City Council to coordinate the regional response.

Professor Tom Solomon, Chair of Neurological Science and Director of the HPRU, describes the mammoth nature of the effort: “This has been a huge task, led from Liverpool but involving hospital staff all around the country. It provided key information on who was getting sick from COVID-19 to guide government policy.”

Caring and curing

Currently, as part of these national studies, significant research is being undertaken at the University:

  • Professor Calum Semple OBE is leading the ISARIC-4C study – the largest of its kind in the world – alongside Dr Kenneth Baillie at the University of Edinburgh and Professor Peter Openshaw from Imperial College London, gathering data from more than 82,000 COVID-19 patients to provide real-time information about the virus.
  • The AGILE clinical trial platform, capable of testing multiple potential treatments in parallel, is being led by Professor Saye Khoo, Honorary Consultant Physician in Infectious Diseases at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital. The research will help to rapidly identify the most effective drugs and, in Professor Khoo’s words, “allow us to restart society quicker.”
  • Professor Sally Sheard (BA Hons Geography 1986, PhD 1994) and Dr Nina Gobat are examining the effect of real-time UK policy decisions on frontline healthcare workers and gaining unique insights into policy formation through collaboration with members from the Strategic Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
  • CCP CANCER-UK, led by Professor Carlo Palmieri and Dr Lance Turtle in collaboration with ISARIC-4C, is assessing the impact of COVID-19 on people living with cancer - both the increased risk of complications and the effect of disrupted diagnoses and treatment.
  • The Centre for Genomic Research at the University is part of a genome sequencing consortium led by Professor Alistair Darby alongside Professor Steve Paterson and Professor Julian Hiscox, in which scientists are monitoring changes in the virus nationally to understand its spread, helping PHE make policy decisions.

A community effort

In terms of the University’s wider involvement in the city-wide response to the pandemic, academics are continuing their efforts to find solutions to the adverse effects the pandemic has had on public health, our economy and society.

Professor Louise Kenny (MBChB Hons 1993), Executive-Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences and vice-chair of Liverpool Health Partners, launched Liverpool STOP COVID, a city-wide initiative aimed at easing the burden of the pandemic locally, nationally and globally. The project also aims to coordinate COVID-19 research across the Liverpool City Region and has played a pivotal role in the breakthrough of clinical trials into the vaccine.

As for social care, Dr Clarissa Geibel from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences is leading a study into the effects of social services closures caused by the pandemic, and the impact this is having on the lives of older people, unpaid carers, and those living with dementia. Additionally, the Department of Psychology is studying the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and wellbeing as part of a wider Household study that is being led by Professor Neil French (PhD Tropical Medicine 2004).

Meanwhile, the Department of Music teamed up with local magazine Bido Lito! to conduct research into the effects of the pandemic on the music industry in the Liverpool City Region, sadly concluding there has been a ‘catastrophic impact’.

The campus safety plan was launched at the beginning of this academic year, aiming to slow the virus’ spread by ensuring staff and students have a thorough understanding of current guidelines. The University also set up a COVID-19 testing centre on campus as part of its Campus Shield initiative.

Raising funds

As we entered the first national lockdown in March last year, the University launched a fundraising Campaign within a week, prioritising vital research, student support, and securing PPE. The COVID-19 Emergency Response Campaign has raised more than £250,000 to date and helped fund life-saving research into the virus. In addition, the Student Crisis Support Fund, launched in May, has raised £200,000 and provided vital support for more than 200 students in financial hardship during the pandemic. It’s estimated that this fundraising total of close to half a million pounds has helped leverage an additional £17m in research funding.

PPE for frontline workers has been donated from all over the world, with over 211,000 items gathered from supporters including Liverpool’s Chinese community, the Nigerian Alumni Network and firms including Taylor Wessing LLP.

Life after COVID-19

Since the beginning of the pandemic, The Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place, in collaboration with the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, has published a series of COVID-19 Policy Briefs. Drawing on expertise within the University and across the City Region, the series complements and adds value to the work of civic leaders and policy makers as they respond to the profound challenges arising from the pandemic. Its objective is to disseminate knowledge, best practices and translational research expertise to mitigate the present health crisis and its aftershocks, and to Build Back Better to create a more resilient Liverpool City Region.

In addition, the Faculty of Science and Engineering’s Civic Engagement Report, published in November 2020, outlined how a range of programmes and partnerships will boost regional skills and innovation – and in the longer term, contribute to the recovery, engage communities and influence public policy.

Professor Anthony Hollander, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Impact and chair of the N8 Strategic Executive Group, is leading the way towards an eco-conscious recovery from COVID-19. The N8 Research Partnership brings together eight universities in the North, along with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, to submit a representation to the 2020 Comprehensive Spending Review.

Digitally, the University is responding to the demands from technology and the post-COVID-19 recovery as outlined in our feature on the digital campus.

Last summer, as well as the launch of Professor Tom Solomon’s Scouse Science podcast, the University launched its Liverpool Responds series to discuss the city’s post-COVID response, bringing together speakers from across the University and from partner organisations such as Liverpool City Council, local football clubs and places of worship. 

All in to win

As resolution nears, Liverpool and our University are playing a pivotal role in the fightback against COVID-19

  • NOVEMBER 2020: Liverpool became the centre of an ambitious national pilot to test asymptomatic people, aiming to reduce or contain transmission of the virus. An interim report to evaluate the pilot, led by Professor Iain Buchan (BSc Hons Pharmacology 1989, MBChB 1991, MD 2001), has recently set out its preliminary findings to help policymakers.
  • PROFESSOR SIR Munir Pirmohamed, Chair of the CHM, was among the panel of expert scientists who announced the first COVID-19 vaccine – the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine – that was approved for use in the UK by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) at a Downing Street briefing in December.
  • ONGOING STUDIES at the Centre for Genomic Research are analysing new variants of COVID-19, caused by a mutation in the spike protein, to help ensure the efficacy of current and future vaccines.

  • DURING THE current vaccination roll-out, our medical students are again volunteering on the frontline, administering vaccines to people across the City. Liverpool’s Director of Public Health, Matthew Ashton (MPublic Health 2006), recently thanked students for the crucial role they are playing.
  • AT A RECENT Liverpool Responds event, expert speakers including Director of CEIDR, Professor William Hope, and Professors Alistair Darby, Calum Semple, Saye Khoo and Sally Sheard detailed how Liverpool is continuing to “punch above its weight” in response to the pandemic. “We shouldn’t be afraid of changing the world,” said Professor Saye Khoo, in conclusion. ●

This has been a huge task, led from Liverpool but involving hospital staff all around the country. It provided key information on who was getting sick from COVID-19 to guide government policy.

Professor Tom Solomon, Chair of Neurological Science and Director of the HPRU

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