Professor Gavin Screaton: tackling the pandemic

Reading the news coming out of Wuhan back in early January 2020, I was hopeful that, as with previous SARS outbreaks, it could be controlled through strict isolation. But it rapidly became evident this wouldn’t be the case. Not long after, I sat in the Silver Group meeting with my senior University colleagues discussing how we could safely repatriate some of our students from China. By then it was clear COVID-19 was going to spread and cause major upheaval, and we may be faced with the prospect of having to close parts of the University.

Almost exactly a year ago on 30 January, we brought together a group of researchers and professional support staff in a meeting room at the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics, chaired by Richard Cornall. It was clear that Oxford could make a major contribution toward the pandemic. We recognized that we all had to work with focus and at speed. Many groups had already started working on the issue, but we knew that we needed to coordinate our efforts and share ideas. We had to coordinate access to clinical material (virus samples), collaborate with partners – such as our colleagues in Porton Down, where important animal work for the vaccine took place – and raise funds.

Our much-publicised successes are a testament to our successful teamwork and the decades of experience of a number of our colleagues. And this teamwork continues; attendance at these meetings (now conducted online of course) has grown significantly as other units around the University have joined in, researching all aspects of the pandemic. These range from psychologists studying the effects of lockdown on our mental health to engineers developing the rapid COVID-19 tests now used at Heathrow airport. We’ve had many successes, most notably the development of the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine and finding that dexamethasone reduced the number of deaths in very sick COVID-19 patients. And we’re seeing the importance of negative evidence too, for instance that plasma therapy and hydroxychloroquine proved not to benefit patients. In my own lab we are studying antibody response to the virus and have made over 400 monoclonals – antibodies made by cloning unique white blood cells – that are now being screened for therapeutic value. 

The news in recent weeks of the new variants of SARS-CoV-2 is no doubt worrying, and rightfully so. Across the Medical Sciences and the University we are launching an intense research programme to understand the impacts these variants will have, and to rapidly develop new vaccines if these are required. I remain confident that our dedicated colleagues will continue working to their utmost capacity to meet these challenges, as this virus continues to be an unwelcome presence in our lives.