Retain and build on scientific gains made during COVID-19

The Academy’s annual FORUM Lecture was held on 25 November 2021. We brought together researchers, regulators, patients and business leaders to reflect on how UK science helped the COVID-19 pandemic response.

Speakers considered the speed, complexity and success of research around COVID-19 and how this new momentum can be maintained in the future.

The lecture was held as the Academy’s first hybrid event, with around 200 people joining in person or online. Now in its 19th year, the lecture has been renamed in honour of Sir Colin Dollery, who died in December 2020. In his role as Academy Treasurer in 2003, Sir Colin was instrumental in the creation of the Academy's FORUM programme, which brings together people across academia, industry, the NHS and Government to improve health.

Research is everyone's business

Among the event speakers was UK Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance FMedSci, who praised the RECOVERY study, a clinical trial for patients hospitalised with COVID-19 that found dexamethasone was an effective treatment. He said:

“At the peak of the first wave, something like 11% of all patients in hospital with COVID were enrolled in the RECOVERY study. That is an extraordinary achievement. Normally with clinical trials, if you look at the eligible populations, the enrolment is 1%, if you’re lucky.”

Kimberly Featherstone, a teacher from Huddersfield, took part in the RECOVERY trail when she was hospitalised with COVID-19 in 2020, speaking at the lecture, she said:

“When I’m asked why I was so eager to take part in RECOVERY, my answer is simple: one, I love science and I trust science; two, I trust the NHS completely; and three, somebody has to do it. We all want better; better cancer treatments, better cold and flu remedies, better contraceptives, and for that research has to happen. Someone somewhere has to put their faith in science and just do it. I’m more than happy to be one of those people.”

Watch Kimberly's full talk below alongside Professor Patrick Chinnery FMedSci, Chair of the UK COVID-19 Therapeutics Advisory Panel:

The RECOVERY study was also praised by two other speakers: Natalie Pattison, Professor of Clinical Nursing at the University of Hertfordshire and Charlotte Summers, Professor of Intensive Care Medicine at the University of Cambridge. Professor Summers said:

“It delivered because of patients across the NHS, and because we mobilised infrastructure built up by the National Institute for Health Research over ten years. We had the infrastructure that we needed to deliver for our patients, and to embed care for the first time across the entire NHS. Research was everybody’s business.”

Watch Charlotte and Natalie's full talk below:

24-hour care

The event also featured talks by Jacob Haddad, co-Founder at accuRx, a firm providing a communication platform for GP practices, and Dr Dave Triska, a GP at a surgery using accuRx. They discussed the move towards digital and virtual GP interactions triggered by the pandemic. Dr Triska said: 

“Testing situations provide novel solutions and, often, unintended benefits.”

During the pandemic, using the accuRx communications platform enabled asynchronous communication between patients and doctors, meaning that, for the first time, patients had 24-hour access to primary care. He added:

“Technology has augmented clinical care; it’s not replaced it. It’s allowed us to deliver a more traditional service where patients are cared for by their GP, at times that suit them.”

Watch Dave and Jason's full talk below:

Addressing inequalities

Another theme discussed by several of the speakers was inequalities in the pandemic – across who took part in clinical trials, access to vaccines, and information about vaccines.

Kamlesh Khunti FMedSci, Professor of Primary Care Diabetes & Vascular Medicine at the University of Leicester, is a member of the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and chair of its Ethnicity Subpanel. He told the meeting:

“My plea would be that we need to recruit representative proportions of patients from all areas, but we also need to report by different groups. We normally report our results by different age and sex, but I think reporting by ethnicity and such areas as deprivation should become standard.”

Lynn Laidlaw, a patient representative involved with Academy policy work, highlighted a worrying decrease in levels of patient and public involvement by researchers during the pandemic:

“No one will care about research and services more than the people and communities affected by diseases and issues such as inequalities. We live with the conditions and are affected by these issues, and it gives us unique insight into what matters, what outcomes are important and what ‘good’ looks like in the context of our lives. If we didn’t think that involving us would be beneficial, then we wouldn’t waste clinicians’ and researchers’ time.”

Innovation and collaboration

Dr June Raine CBE, Chief Executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, explained that COVID-19 compelled innovation. She said:

“Our major learning from the pandemic was to become an enabling regulator, no longer a policeman or a watchdog, but a facilitator of access. We had been talking about innovative trial design and introducing more innovate approaches to our work for a long time, but this was the catalyst and the call to arms.”

Collaboration was also an important theme for Dr Melanie Saville, Director of Vaccine Research & Development at CEPI, the international Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. She highlighted that scientific collaboration reduced COVID-19 vaccine development time from around ten years to just over 300 days. She added:

“We have a challenge: what if you could convert those 300 days into 100 days?” – how many lives could be saved in future pandemics?

Watch Melanie's full talk below alongside Dr Waseem Bani, junior doctor and member of the British Islamic Medical Association's National COVID Response Group:

Summing up, Academy President, Professor Dame Anne Johnson PMedSci said:

“These are just a few examples of the progress we’ve made during the pandemic. We mustn’t lose that momentum.” Future scientific research can and must build on these gains.

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