Building on our pandemic experiences

Throughout Trinity term we will feature colleagues who contributed to the University’s COVID response – hearing about what they have done during the pandemic, and what they plan to take away from the last two years.

professor chris conlon

This time Professor Chris Conlon, Professor of Infectious Diseases at the Nuffield Department of Medicine, shares his experience chairing the University’s Health Measures Advisory Group, and discusses the University’s new Pandemic Sciences Institute.

I'm in a slightly unusual position: I'm at the end of my career. At the beginning of my career I dealt with another pandemic, HIV. When I was first starting as a doctor, we were working with HIV without knowing what it was; we didn't have tests, we saw people dying and only with time did we get tests and then treatments. COVID has been very similar to that, but on speed.

Establishing the University testing service

I think the most important thing that we achieved [during the COVID-19 pandemic], with relatively short notice, was getting a proper testing service set up for the University. This involved collaboration with the hospital and also with a large number of people to help with the IT, the testing itself, the results... so that people felt confident that if they were unwell they could seek a test and get a reliable result very quickly.

And for quite a lot of the pandemic,  in fact, we were able to get results back to students and staff much quicker than the national system, so I think in practice that was the biggest achievement that we had.

I think it would now be much easier for us to sort out further testing for other diseases, or even for another wave of COVID with relatively short notice, if we had to.

Increasing collaboration

I think that what has happened with the pandemic has made people much more aware of what other people within the University are doing, and that's led to collaborations which have gone well beyond COVID: people are collaborating with research, people are thinking more widely about new methods of teaching. The new ways of doing things have allowed us to be a bit more flexible in our approach to life.

We can build on the really impressive collaboration that's gone on in Oxford during COVID: the enormous amount of science that's been produced and the benefits brought about by things like the RECOVERY trial and the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Being back in person

I'm pleased we are coming back together again now. I think humans rely on human contact and, whatever one says about distanced meetings and distance learning, people do feel better seeing real people in three dimensions. And in practice people are probably more efficient in some of the ways they deal with things in person, because of the impact of things like non-verbal communication and chance meetings in offices or in the street (rather than pre-arranged meetings on a computer somewhere).

Pandemic Sciences Institute

Plans are underway for the University’s new Pandemic Sciences Institute. The point of the centre is to be better prepared for future pandemics and to facilitate global research and interventions. The hope is that new and emerging pathogens will be identified early and that vaccine development can capitalise on new technologies, so that the impact of new pandemics can be reduced. There is little doubt that other pandemics will occur and, when they do, Oxford will once again be at the forefront of the global response.