Tackling COVID-19: Professor Ian Goodfellow

Ian Goodfellow is no stranger to infectious disease outbreaks. In 2014 he left behind the safety of his Cambridge lab to join a taskforce fighting the hazardous Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. With COVID-19 now sweeping the globe, Goodfellow is once again applying his scientific expertise to finding solutions in real time.

I work in the Department of Pathology at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Although it’s now closed I’m still here, along with others from the Division of Virology and volunteers from the Department of Medicine. We’re supported by two great Lab Managers, who take it in turns to come in and keep the labs operational. Without them, and the staff working from home placing urgent orders, we’d be in a very difficult position.

I gained experience in setting up rapid diagnostics and in viral genetic sequencing when working on the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I’m lucky to have a great team of people here in Cambridge, including Dr Luke Meredith who has recently returned from a very stressful six months in South Sudan where he was a World Health Organisation Coordinator for Ebola and COVID-19 testing.

During the COVID-19 pandemic we are sequencing the coronavirus in real time. We collect samples from the Addenbrooke’s diagnostic team, sequence them, piece together the genomes and upload the data to a national server for analysis. The process is similar to many molecular methods we use routinely in the lab. We’ve been able to go from a standing start to producing viral sequences within 24 hours. This work is part a large national consortium headed by Professor Sharon Peacock in the Department of Medicine.

Revealing the genetic sequence of the virus can improve knowledge about COVID-19, and can provide invaluable information about the size of the epidemic and potential sources of infections. As highlighted by Dr Mike Ryan from the WHO, preparedness is important, but moving fast is essential. If you don’t make decisions quickly then you get behind the epidemic curve. Responding rapidly is more important than making sure everything is 100% correct.

I’ve also been coordinating local volunteers to enable them to support the national response. Working with Rhys Grant in the University’s Department of Biochemistry, we’ve set up a website to capture volunteers with skills relevant to COVID-19 testing. Our database now has over 1200 people from Cambridge signed up. We’ve used it to get Cambridge staff engaged in the establishment of the national testing lab in Milton Keynes, and are feeding into local efforts to establish the fourth national testing centre here in Cambridge.

Rapid wide-spread testing of the community is the biggest challenge we face relating to this pandemic. It will be key to stamping out clusters of the infection in the coming months.

The Cambridge research community has really come together. Everyone is keen to help in the response efforts, and the heads of institutes have been very supportive of anyone wanting to engage. Our staff have a real ‘can do’ attitude and a drive to overcome practical challenges. We’ve been able to engage people from many departments in various aspects of the work very quickly. Trying to wade through regulatory issues is more of a challenge.

We are also involved in developing a programme of research on COVID-19. A new initiative in the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease (CITIID), led by Professor Ken Smith, has been set up to enable university-wide research on COVID-19. This draws together people from across the University, with various skills and interests in different aspects of COVID-19, to engage in collaborative studies. It makes use of the excellent facilities in the new Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre, including a state of the art containment level 3 laboratory that enables work with live COVID-19.

After the pandemic is over I’m really looking forward to taking a well-deserved holiday with my family. Everyday life as an academic is challenging at the best of times, but when you layer on top the pressure of working in a pandemic, trying to support the efforts in multiple ways and trying to juggle so many things, it can really take its toll.

Goodfellow in the lab at Addenbrooke’s Hospital with his team

/University Release. The material in this public release comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. View in full here.