Feature

Covid-19: How the pandemic forged One Dundee

Published on 17 February 2021

The University has always promoted a message of “One Dundee” - of a community united in good times and bad. That ethos has been exemplified by the response of the University and our community to the Covid-19 pandemic over the past year.

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Within days of Prime Minister Boris Johnston announcing the United Kingdom was moving into lockdown, our first academic partnerships had been formed to start tackling the virus.

Researchers at the MRC Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit (MRC-PPU), within the School of Life Sciences, teamed up with counterparts at the University of Glasgow to identify 38  separate proteins produced by SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19. Meanwhile, we responded to the UK Government’s call for scientific assistance, with the lab of Professor Angus Lamond donating the highly specialised Thermo KingFisher Flex robot to a national diagnostic centre in Milton Keynes. The urgency of the request, made by the office of the Prime Minister, ensured that the prized technology was collected from campus and escorted to its new home by the Royal Navy.

Professor Dario Alessi, Director of the MRC-PPU, said, “We have tremendous expertise here and the challenge presented to us by Covid-19 was one that we were determined to rise to.

“As the outbreak began, staff here were working day and night to understand the virus. The knowledge we gained was placed on our reagent website so that researchers around the world could utilise everything that we learned. It was a herculean effort, and I would like to pay tribute to the staff for how they responded to the challenge.”

But the early fight against Covid was not restricted to the laboratories.

Estates staff with PPE equipment ready for delivery to the city council

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and its availability, became headline news. With the need to keep public-facing workers safe and sustain crucial services, never had there been such a desperate need for high-quality, protective clothing. With both teaching and laboratory work suspended on campus, the University gathered together hundreds of items that could be utilised by Dundee City Council staff.

Facemasks, gloves and other pieces of specialist equipment were collected from departments across the University, coordinated by Professor Niamh Nic Daeid, Michael Marra and Laura Daly, from the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science. Trolley loads of equipment were then delivered to Dundee City Council, allowing its staff to continue delivering services to some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

As the need for more key workers became evident, final-year students from our School of Medicine showed their commitment to tackling the disease, and their chosen profession.

More than 100 final year Medicine students graduated at the beginning of April – two months earlier than planned - so they too could join NHS staff on the frontline. The move was taken to allow the new graduates to complete early registration with the General Medical Council, allowing them to join the NHS workforce amid fears that the virus could overwhelm those already working within healthcare settings.

More students were also quick to play their part, with those who remained in Dundee keen to demonstrate their support to those who were risking their own health on a daily basis. Among those was Neil Campbell, an MSc Community Learning and Development student, who was balancing his studies with his role as founder and Director of RockSolid Dundee, a social action initiative based in the city’s East End. In April 2020, as the world adjusted to life in a pandemic, Neil and his colleagues were distributing 200 lunches a day within the local community.

Neil Campbell organising food larder

Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design was equally quick to respond to the changing world, working with NHS Tayside and local textile company, Halley Stevensons, to produce medical scrubs for local healthcare workers. Within weeks of the pandemic taking hold, volunteers at the so-called “Scrub Hub” were producing hundreds of sets of scrubs.

“As soon as we were alerted by NHS Tayside that there was a need for scrubs that we might be able to help with, we got thinking and moved quickly into action,” said Jane Keith, Programme Co-Director for Textile Design at DJCAD.

“The Scrub Hub was a fantastic way to bring people together at a hugely uncertain time, but also to show our support and make a difference on behalf of those frontline workers.”

Volunteers in the NHS scrubs hub set up on campus

As the scientific community developed a greater understanding of Covid-19, the impact of the disease on the lungs became a particular focus for medical study.

Professor James Chalmers, from the University’s School of Medicine, is one of the country’s foremost authorities on lung conditions and has spearheaded much of the University’s research in this field. In July he was appointed to lead the Scottish tranche of a major UK-wide study into the long-term impacts of Covid-19 on hospitalised patients. The £8.4 million study was given urgent public health research status by the Department of Health and Social Care, in a bid to understand and improve the health of survivors who experienced the worst effects of Covid-19.

Having forged a reputation as one of the country’s leading lung experts, Professor Chalmers has become a regular fixture on television and radio, updating the public on his work.

“Right from the beginning of the pandemic, our scientists were here, collecting samples from people with Covid-19, helping to treat them, and trying to find new treatments by conducting vital clinical trials.

“One of the major challenges traditionally faced by scientists is the time taken to write grants for research funding. We didn’t have that time during the pandemic, but we worked with great partners, like the British Lung Foundation, that allowed us to redeploy staff that allowed us to work on Covid-19 projects.

“While an exciting time for scientists, we have always been aware of the threat posed by this illness and the sacrifices being made by so many people as we adjusted to living with it. What we can say, however, is that the research undertaken here has really helped to improve outcomes for people suffering from this disease.

“We started two major randomised trials of therapies, including the first major clinical trial led from Scotland. We also started a unique collaboration between scientists and frontline clinicians working with Covid-19 patients. Working together has helped us to produce results in a rapid timeframe.”

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And these are just a handful of examples of the activity that has taken place. To give an insight into the depth and breadth of our response to the pandemic, University staff or students have been involved in more than 50 initiatives related to researching the illness, or in helping those working with or affected by Covid-19.

Professor Sir Mike Ferguson, Regius Professor of Life Sciences, said, “The University has risen vigorously to the Covid-19 challenge.

“At the clinical end, colleagues in the School of Medicine and NHS Tayside have, as well as brilliantly looking after patients, been engaged in key national and international research projects and clinical trials. At the drug discovery end our Medical Research Council Unit, directed by Professor Dario Alessi, has been making all the different component parts of the virus to provide to the national research community and our Drug Discovery Unit, led by Professor Paul Wyatt, was chosen to develop new medicines for treating coronavirus infections.

“At the diagnostics end, Professor David Gray has been central to setting up and running the Glasgow Lighthouse Lab that performs 50,000 tests a day. I have also been providing a bit of advice to the UK Government on Covid-19 antibody testing and national core studies.”

And all of this hard work is beginning to reap rewards. With vaccines successfully developed and now being rolled out around the world, there is hope that we may soon return to the lives we once lived. And as it has done throughout the pandemic, the University is again stepping up and playing its role in the vaccination process.

In November 2020, we began recruitment for a Covid-19 vaccine trial, in partnership with NHS Tayside, for a candidate developed by Janssen Pharmaceuticals. With numerous vaccines required to protect the global population, our involvement is playing a pivotal role in developing a vaccine that could one day play a crucial role in reducing Covid-19 rates and saving lives.

Professor Jacob George

Professor Jacob George, from the School of Medicine, said, “We are already seeing vaccines rolled out across the UK and other countries, but the world will require several different vaccines to control the spread of this virus. That is why the work we are doing here, with the help of volunteers from across Tayside and Fife, is so crucial.”

And already we are looking beyond vaccines. In February 2021, we launched an appeal for thousands of volunteers for a new study assessing the effectiveness and safety of Covid-19 vaccines.

VAC4COVID has been launched by the University’s Medicines Monitoring Unit (MEMO Research) to help ensure vaccines work as they should, helping scientists and doctors understand people’s health experiences after vaccination.

Like other institutions, the University of Dundee has adapted in the face of an unprecedented world event. But we are also preparing for the future, and even as we continue to battle Covid-19, we are looking at what can be done to prevent such tumultuous events from occurring again.

That is why we have established the University of Dundee Coronavirus Research Fundraising Campaign, a sustained effort to ensure that the hardships, sacrifices and losses endured by so many of us never have to be experienced again.

 Inke Näthke standing looking at the camera

Professor Inke Nathke, Interim Dean, School of Life Sciences, said, “Covid-19 will not be the last coronavirus the world will face. Our researchers are also bringing Dundee’s expertise in drug discovery to bear on future strains. The Covid-19 crisis has shown we need to have drugs proven to be effective against coronaviruses and ready on the shelf, if and when future outbreaks occur.”

While life may have stood still for many of us this past year, science at the University of Dundee most certainly has not. While Covid-19 has presented a monumental challenge to us all, our experts have and will continue to play their part in the global fight against this virus. Research is one of the cornerstones of our institution and as we look to the future, we can look to the establishment of a new Biomedical Cluster to further nurture a culture of research excellence and allow some of the sector’s brightest minds to flourish.

The world may never be the same again, but the University of Dundee can proudly state that in some of the darkest hours in recent history, students and staff did what they could to bring hope to others. Whether helping our neighbours in the community, or helping science through our world-leading research, we are One Dundee.

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Story category Coronavirus (Covid-19)