Imperial College London has been awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The prize celebrates the rapid and collaborative early response from staff across different disciplines, their role in developing treatments, vaccines and tests, and their efforts supporting the international response to COVID-19.
“I am proud to accept this honour, which is a fitting testament to the hard work of our entire community.” Professor Alice Gast President of Imperial
Run by the Royal Anniversary Trust, the Queen’s Anniversary Prizes are the highest national Honour awarded in UK further and higher education. They celebrate excellence and innovation and recognise work that delivers benefit to the wider world and public.
The 21 prize-winning universities and colleges were announced at a reception at St James’s Palace today, and the presentation ceremony with a member of the Royal Family is expected to take place in February 2022.
Professor Alice Gast, President of Imperial College London said: “The resilience, ingenuity and unwavering dedication of our community in response to the pandemic has been astonishing. From modelling disease spread to building PPE for healthcare workers, our brilliant colleagues, students and alumni have been on the front lines at every stage of the pandemic and continue to be. At the same time, we pivoted fast to develop new hybrid-learning initiatives that would continue to deliver the world-class education our students deserve during national lockdowns. I am proud to accept this honour, which is a fitting testament to the hard work of our entire community.”
Imperial’s COVID-19 response has also resulted in the College being recognised as University of the Year 2022 in The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide for an excellent student experience and our leadership in responding to the pandemic.
Modelling the virus’s spread around the world
The College’s response to COVID-19 began in January 2020 shortly after the announcement of the new outbreak in Wuhan, China. A group of more than 80 academics and students – including epidemiologists, statisticians, research software developers, clinicians and health economists – joined forces to study the transmissibility and severity of the virus.
Over time this COVID-19 Response Team grew, with new collaborations with colleagues across multiple departments at Imperial and across countries, and their modelling work gained prominent interest. Their models were the first to suggest that the scale of the emerging outbreak was already considerably larger than detected. They also highlighted that human-to-human transmission was the only plausible explanation for the scale of the outbreak in Wuhan. Their reports were quickly picked up by the media and the scientific community and raised awareness of the emerging pandemic.
Since those early days, the team has been advising and influencing governments around the world, helping policymakers and healthcare planners to shape their COVID-19 strategies.
Developing treatments, tests and vaccines
Alongside this, as the scale and severity of the pandemic became clear, Imperial brought together teams to analyse risk factors for COVID-19 and to develop new treatments, tests and vaccine technologies. Work included trialling a unique vaccine approach that could revolutionise the way vaccines are produced for SARS-CoV-2 and other major disease threats, by using self-amplifying RNA (saRNA) vaccines. These vaccines could use extremely small doses, meaning vast quantities could be developed, tested, manufactured, and distributed with greater speed and efficiency.
The College also launched a landmark human challenge study with its partners, to help understand the course of disease in those with mild infections and to investigate the detailed natural history of SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Overall, Imperial has led 15 major clinical trials on COVID-19 treatments, including rapidly adapting past trials in order to capture results quickly in the face of the pandemic. Trials included REMAP-CAP, which was specifically designed to be deployed in a pandemic to evaluate multiple treatments simultaneously in critically ill patients. This began recruiting COVID-19 patients in intensive care units throughout the UK at the start of the pandemic. It helped researchers discover that, in ICU patients, cheap and widely available steroids improve survival, a rheumatoid arthritis drug reduces COVID-19 mortality by 25% and reduces time in hospital, and that treatment with blood serum from a recovered patient does not improve outcomes.
Tracking infections across England
Imperial leads one of the world’s largest COVID-19 community surveillance studies – the REACT study – which tracks infection across England through regular testing of the population. Set up in April 2020, the study has two parts. One tracks current cases by testing randomly selected people for two weeks using nose and throat swabs at home, and the other determines how many people have had an immune response to SARS-CoV-2 (either in response to an infection or vaccination) by using antibody finger-prick tests. The study provides key data to the UK Government to track COVID-19 in real-time across England.
Supporting staff and students
When the pandemic began, leaders in education, research, governance, finance, and operations at Imperial convened to determine the response to COVID-19 for staff and students, and to ensure critical research and educational activities continued. They created a COVID-19 Response Fund was to support the welfare of staff and students working in hospitals and support high-impact COVID-19 projects, such as creating a low-cost emergency ventilator.
Teaching staff also came up with innovative approaches to virtual learning, such as virtual field trips and labs-in-a-box. The former allowed students to travel the world in search of scientific discovery, while not having to breach lockdown rules. The latter resulted in students receiving miniaturised experiments mailed to their doorstep, meaning they could continue to learn from home.
Imperial researchers created new, rapid tests, and alongside this Imperial devised testing strategies that ensured staff and students on campus could work confidently and safely. The College helped set up a local testing facility with 5,000 daily tests for Imperial and its associated hospitals, and conducted monthly sampling on the London tube and bus network and around its campuses to analyse for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.