The last few months have disrupted our life norms in many ways, and caused us all to worry about our own health or that of loved ones. We all are eagerly awaiting an effective vaccine, so that we can all enjoy the many pleasures of studying together, working in teams, undertaking joint research programmes, playing team sports and enjoying the social life afforded by our collegiate university.
Some things, however, have not changed. We are still surrounded by many colleagues who care and who will do all possible to help each other. In the past three months, I have sat in many discussions with the VC, Registrar, other PVCs, Divisional Heads, College Heads and Department Heads. All of these individuals are focussed on minimising the challenges forced upon all our students and staff, as a consequence of this pandemic. A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to an online celebration of our colleague (and my uni chum) Chris Schofield’s 60th birthday party – there were so many people online who rightly adore Chris, and who feel immense gratitude for all he has done to shape their careers and lives. In Oxford, we are fortunate to have so many others like Chris.
For many of our greatest scientists, lockdown has led to an injection of even greater urgency in their research missions: Marc Feldmann has initiated two clinical trials, one in the UK and one in the US to evaluate the potential of anti-TNF drugs in hospitalised COVID patients (I am very optimistic about the outcome!); Raymond Dwek and Nicole Zitzmann are developing more efficacious broad spectrum anti-viral treatments, and Rajarshi Banerjee (‘Banjo’) and Mike Brady are mapping organ health following COVID disease. Banjo and Mike (Founders of a university spinout, Perspectum) rang me a few days ago to discuss what more could they do to help our post-graduate students and the broader university research community.
Several colleagues have written in recent weeks about the remarkable scientific and clinical successes of our university: partnership with AstraZeneca and the UK government to develop a vaccine for COVID (which will be provided ‘at cost’ to all during the pandemic, and in a similar manner to those in low and middle income countries post this pandemic); a clear demonstration of the lack of efficacy of hydroxy-chloroquine in treating COVID infections, and the life saving features of the cheap anti-inflammatory dexamethasone in hospitalised patients with severe respiratory complications (Peter Horby and Martin Landray). Not only is Oxford full of inspiring leaders, terrific innovators and brilliant entrepreneurs, all of whom are determined to make the world a better place, but our culture is also a huge differentiator. We recognise that solutions to big global challenges will only come through collaboration with other disciplines, other institutions, industry, regulators, funders and other nations.
It is not surprising, therefore, that many small and large organisations want to have a presence in Oxford. An example of this is the recent announcement of partnerships between Matthew Wood’s spinout Evox, with the global pharmaceutical giants Takeda and Lilly. I know I am biased, but Matthew is an awesome scientist, a wonderful innovator and a remarkable entrepreneur. Several of our alumni are wishing to create major investment funds to tackle ‘Net Zero’ or to accelerate the creation of many more social enterprises (an area of enormous strength for our university). Across the university ecosystem we are fortunate to have numerous ‘enterprise catalysts’ – Ana Bakshi (Foundry), Thomas Hellman (CDL), Peter Drobac (Skoll), Matt Perkins (OUI) and Jim Wilkinson (OSI). The vision and energy of such colleagues, will in coming years help create new technology platforms and solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing humanity and our planet. I believe the next trillion dollar company will be in healthcare technology – I hope it is grown out of this university’s enormous talent pool and based in one of the innovation districts being created by David Prout.
My conclusion is simple - life has been made more difficult by the current pandemic, but I feel so lucky to be working in Oxford.
I will finish with a personal dilemma, faced I am sure by many other parents. My son’s 25th birthday is in early July. He is a junior doctor who has been treating COVID patients for the past four months. As some of you know, I am nearly Chris Schofield’s age, from the BAME community, and do not enjoy the physique of Roger Bannister. Should I hug my son on Saturday?