Tackling COVID-19: Professor James Wood

“Cambridge’s infectious diseases community is making a huge contribution to tackling the pandemic,” says Professor James Wood. He leads several large-scale programmes at the University that rely on his research expertise: infectious diseases that jump from animals to humans. This is, he says, a research area that was ‘colossally neglected’ before COVID-19 emerged.

Before COVID-19, I split my time between my Vet School office and endless meetings in the central University and in London, including at Defra and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Now I’m based in my conservatory at home, which oscillates between freezing cold and too hot! I seem to have even more meetings now, by Webex, Zoom, Skype and Teams. Talking to people on the telephone is a great release from the two dimensional world many of us now live in.

I’m organising the Vet School’s research and policy responses to the epidemic, and working with colleagues in Cambridge Infectious Diseases, one of the University’s Interdisciplinary Research Centres, to do the same. I’m also supporting a total revision of the veterinary course examination and assessment – whilst trying to continue with my own multidisciplinary research in infection dynamics and disease control. And I’m providing a weekly hour-long ‘phone-an-expert’ service on the Jeremy Sallis Show on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

I study zoonotic diseases, which are infections that spread from humans to animals. My research is mostly based in sub-Saharan Africa and India. In Ethiopia and India I’ve been working on bovine tuberculosis, and in Ghana I’m studying viruses that come from bats – like COVID-19 probably did – in order to reduce the chances of spread to human populations.

There is an almost total lack of necessary health infrastructure in low and middle-income countries. This may result in massive mortality from COVID-19 in these places, and it is certainly likely to further emphasise health and wealth inequalities. I think this is a really major challenge in addressing the pandemic globally.

I suspect that the pandemic will further raise interest in zoonotic infections and help us to do more about them. We need far larger structural programmes to address the global challenges from these diseases. This has been a colossally neglected area. I hope that future epidemics like this can be averted through better preparation and policies based on scientific evidence. We’ve been saying this for the 15 years or so that we’ve been working on zoonotic bat viruses. Hopefully more people will listen now.

The Cambridge research community has stepped up to this challenge in so many ways. Vaccination work has been a focus of studies within the Veterinary School. Amazing amounts of PPE were provided to Addenbrooke’s Hospital from Cambridge’s science departments. A new rapid COVID-19 test came from a Cambridge spinout. Colleagues in the Department of Engineering have been working to improve access to ventilators, and infection researchers have been supporting laboratory setups across sub-Saharan Africa with support from the Cambridge-Africa programme.

There’s a huge ongoing contribution from Cambridge’s infectious diseases community. I’m Co-Chair of Cambridge Infectious Diseases, which has been supporting researchers with new COVID-19 research projects and establishing joint interdisciplinary seminar programmes across the University. We’ve also helped the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) develop its ‘Cambridge on call’ programme, which connects selected ‘Policy Fellows’ to Cambridge experts for support in developing policy responses to the crisis. And we’re working with partners to produce guidelines, for many different bodies, to reduce the risk of pandemic spread through trade in live animals.

When this is over I’m looking forward to a holiday away from home with the family, and seeing my isolated mother. It would also be great to reinstate plans to bike across the Alps from Annecy to Nice with a friend, although I’m not quite sure how that’s all going to happen any time soon!

James Wood is Alborada Professor of Equine and Farm Animal Science, and Head of Department of Veterinary Medicine. Listen to his overview of infectious disease modelling on Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy podcast: Science, Policy & Pandemics Episode One.

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