Imperial has announced the winners of the first round of funding for projects tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
The ten research projects are the first to be awarded funding from Imperial’s COVID-19 Response Fund. Launched in March, The Fund provides rapid support to projects with the potential to make a major impact in the fight against the novel coronavirus, as well as support for staff and students serving in the frontlines of Trust hospitals.
The fund was seeded by central funding from Imperial, with the President’s Fund providing major financial support. Backed by more than 400 donors to date, it is intended to bolster existing funding from government, charities, and philanthropists.
I am proud to witness our community rising to the most urgent crisis in a generation. Professor Nick Jennings Vice Provost (Research and Enterprise)
The ten successful projects are the result of an unprecedented College-wide effort to respond to the crisis, with staff and students channeling their expertise to develop vaccines, improve diagnostics, advance therapies, strengthen epidemiology and provide essential healthcare.
Professor Nick Jennings, Vice Provost (Research and Enterprise) at Imperial College London, chairs the expert panel allocating the funding, selecting projects based on research excellence, clinical need, relevant expertise, deliverability and potential outcomes. They are distributing grants on a rapid, rolling basis, taking real time advice from clinical, virological and public health advice on current need.
Professor Nick Jennings said: “I am proud to witness our community rising to the most urgent crisis in a generation. The impact of Imperial’s COVID-19 work, from our research to our community volunteering, can already be seen in labs, newspapers and hospitals across the country. The support of our alumni, friends and donors will greatly enhance our efforts this critical time in the pandemic. We are profoundly grateful for their ongoing support.”
The impact of COVID-19 on on upper respiratory tract bacteria
Professor Shiranee Sriskandan from the Department of Infectious Disease, is leading a pilot study exploring whether COVID-19 might have an impact on upper respiratory tract bacteria, to help inform guidelines on prescribing antibiotics to patients with acute COVID-19 infection.
COVID-19 has a higher mortality rate than seasonal and pandemic influenza (flu), but similar approaches are often taken for managing patients when they are initially admission to hospital. Despite being a virus, deaths from flu are mainly caused by a secondary bacterial infection, so hospitalised patients are commonly treated with antibiotics – whether this is appropriate for COVID-19 patients isn’t clear.
Many COVID-19 patients have raised levels of a biomarker that is commonly associated with bacterial infection (C-reactive protein), so they are also often prescribed antibiotics even if no bacterial infection appears to be present. The recent upsurge in COVID-19 has created pressure on supplies of common antibiotics.
However a striking feature of the current COVID19 pandemic is that it is rare for a patient to have any other evidence of a bacterial co-infection at the time of admission. As antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infection, this means that prescribing antibiotics may be unnecessary at the early stages of admission.
Together with Dr Chris Chiu (also Department of Infectious Disease), Dr Paolo Piazza (Imperial BRC Genomics Facility) and NHS virology colleagues, the team plan an exploratory study to investigate whether SARS-CoV-2, the causal agent of COVID-19, alters the respiratory tract microbiota of patients at the time of admission to hospital such that bacterial secondary infection is unlikely.
“Establishing this could help inform our guidelines, avoiding unnecessarily giving antibiotics to patients who won’t respond to them and alleviating the stress on supplies” Professor Sriskandan said. “It could also provide a rationale for further research on the effects of this virus on other pathogens”.
Low cost emergency ventilator
One of the first recipients of funding was a team of bioengineers and medics who have designed a low cost, high performance emergency ventilator to help patients with coronavirus.
The ventilator, called JamVent, has been designed by a team of bioengineers and medics so that it doesn’t rely on specialist parts, but can perform the demanding tasks necessary for treating patients with COVID-19.
The device could help offer a solution to ventilator shortages worldwide, particularly for health services in developing countries.
The team have made the design freely available for manufacturers and health services around the world to download to help them in the fight against coronavirus.
Project lead Dr Joseph Sherwood, from Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering, said: “We aimed to produce a device that could perform all of the critical functions of ICU ventilators, using simple components outside of the medical supply chain.
“The resulting design is straightforward to manufacture with low cost components, which should allow us to ramp up production quickly.”
Should the public use facemasks?
Dr Jiansheng Xiang, from the Department of Earth Science & Engineering, was awarded funding for a project investigating the effectiveness of face masks to reduce a person’s risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Since the global outbreak of the pandemic, members of the public wearing surgical masks to try and protect themselves from COVID-19 has become an increasingly common sight. However there is ongoing debate about the use of face masks in the community, with evidence to support their use in this way currently limited.
Dr Xiang and his team will investigate their effectiveness by modelling the airflow of a person’s breathing and the mechanics of the material that the mask is made of.
The findings will enable them to make recommendations on how face mask design can be improved with the aim to reduce COVID-19 infection rates in NHS and key workers and the public.
Dr Xiang said: “Many people remain confused about the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19. This study will use our high-fidelity numerical modelling to investigate the effectiveness of face masks to prevent virus laden droplet or particle transmission from infected individuals.
“People are particularly interested in whether, if they believe they are uninfected, the wearing of a mask provides them with protection from what’s out there, as well as the effect of an infected person wearing a mask to prevent the spread of their infection to others. So our study aims to close the evidence gap and investigate exposure hazards to COVID-19 with and without face masks.”