Reflecting on the power of collaboration during the Covid-19 pandemic

Posted on: 6 October 2021 by Dr James Austin in October Posts

James Austin and team at conference 2019
James and colleagues at the BSH conference in 2019

Dr James Austin works in the Institute of Infection, Veterinary and Ecological Sciences in our Faculty of Health and Life Sciences. Here he reflects on the vital work he and his colleagues undertook in 2020, the lessons learned and the benefits of collaboration across disciplines and continents.

Dr James Austin said, 'It is in no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused much disruption over the past 18 months or so. It is difficult to think of much good that has come from this event, having forced many of us all into a state of hibernation along with a heightened sense of anxiety and growing concern for the future. With all these negative impacts it can be difficult to draw on the positives. Though despite this, I have experienced some benefits brought on through these challenging times, especially within the scientific community. I therefore want to draw attention to some of the good that has arisen whilst working through the pandemic as a research scientist at the University of Liverpool. I will focus on being a part of multi-centre collaboration between Liverpool and other universities and highlight the joys of networking and its benefits to our well-being.

Like many scientists, I had mounting uncertainties that coincided with the arrival of COVID-19. The research focus of myself and many other UK scientists had changed overnight – owing to the growing pressures nationally to understand the disease and the best approaches to stop its spread. However, despite these concerns, the arrival of COVID-19 brought with it challenges and a common purpose for science to come together and tackle the detrimental effects of SARS-CoV-2. One of the main demonstrative positives I feel has been the rapid development and administering of the vaccines, which are hugely relied upon in our recovery. This was only possible with a global team-working effort and efficient dissemination of data from governments, universities, trusts and pharmaceutical industries.  

James Austin at work in the lab

James at work in the lab pre Covid-19.

For me the pandemic has brought institutes and departments closer together, acting as a catalyst for cross-discipline collaboration and heroic efforts in sample sharing and processing. One study I have recently been involved with, known as ‘Protective Immunity from T cells to COVID-19 in Health workers’ (PITCH) is one good example of this. This involved a nationwide collaboration setup between the universities of Liverpool, Oxford, Birmingham, Sheffield and Newcastle as well as their surrounding trusts to develop infrastructure to enable close-knit working between researchers, whilst overcoming their spatial separation. This collaboration under difficult circumstances facilitated a synergy, to allow many more samples to be tested and grant access to greater expertise in a timely manner. This large scale study would not have been possible by a single centre alone. The perhaps overused term, ‘teamwork makes the dream work’ has never been more epitomised than in researching COVID-19 and demonstrates what can be overcome when teams collaborate well together.

Between these centres we were able to submit data on over 500 UK healthcare workers – perhaps the most vulnerable group in terms of exposure to the virus. We specifically looked at the differences in the responsiveness of our immune cells after two dosages of the Pfizer vaccine and whether their time intervals between matter (up to 14 weeks). This is important to better understand the type and level of protection conveyed by the vaccines and provide resource to inform healthcare decision makers whilst the vaccination programme rolls on. The timing pressures for releasing data is therefore important and is a constant ‘research’ motivator– and as such having access to larger resources as part of a bigger team is hugely beneficial. Amongst our key findings, we find that the first dose maintains the cells of our immune system up to the second dose regardless of the time interval. With the second jab our immune cells are at least 3 times more responsive to COVID-19 and variants of concern, offering more protection. This is further enhanced in people who have had COVID previously, to imply that an extra third vaccine booster could have benefit in the future. 

To have worked throughout the pandemic under increased pressure, I feel that researchers deserve a huge amount of praise for providing the data and in generating the means of escape from the pandemic. It has been a truly humbling experience to have worked during this rare event and the lessons learnt will surely be of use during new pandemics and in future collaborations. Though challenging, the benefit of working with many people on a similar project is that these like-minded people are available for support and can often provide outlets to share workloads and to meet important project aims. It is therefore a good lesson, at any time, to openly share your concerns with team members so we feel reassured in our well-being and perhaps can share the stresses in order to cope with the pressures of research without defaulting on research commitments.  It is equally important that you are also flexible and able to help others when working as part of a team to ensure research burdens are managed fairly. Perhaps the greatest strength from working as a team is the network legacy that’s created. I am still working closely with these individuals on new projects, and it is easier now that we have established the team mechanics and understand one another’s strengths – in my opinion a team gets stronger over time as we learn more about our different ways of working. As it is I can anticipate more impactful research being delivered by this collaboration and look forward for other opportunities that may be generated by myself or others who have worked with me.

To summarise, despite the added pressures and hard work that has come with COVID-19 research I have really come to appreciate the power of collaboration.  The feeling of being a part of something greater is motivational, and the individual responsibility of being one of the cogs encourages one to work hard to achieve shared goals. It is a great feeling to be able to contribute to something so worthwhile and promote the benefits of key healthcare messages for taking the vaccines as we continue to recover. I would encourage others to develop networks and be open to share concerns to help cope with the stresses of research and other walks of life.' 

Discover more

Read more about the research work James undertook into the dose intervals of the Pfizer vaccine.

Explore the wide range of Covid-19 research work going on at the University of Liverpool.