Health protection

NIHR’s research infrastructure, schools and units are funding and supporting crucial research on tracking the spread of coronavirus and how different measures can prevent transmission, as well as how different groups are affected by infection.

Tracking spread

NIHR Biomedical Research Centres (BRCs) are collaborations between world-leading universities and NHS organisations that bring together academics and clinicians to translate lab-based scientific breakthroughs into potential new treatments, diagnostics and medical technologies.

Researchers at the NIHR Sheffield BRC are part of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium to rapidly map and analyse how coronavirus spreads and behaves. By looking at the whole virus genome in people who have had coronavirus, they hope to monitor changes in the virus at a national and global scale to understand how the virus is spreading and whether different strains are emerging. 

The NIHR Guy's and St Thomas' BRC supported development of an app that tracks symptoms related to COVID-19 on the basis of daily self-reports from users, with the aim of helping slow the outbreak. The BRC supported testing of the app in around 5,000 twins and their families across the UK, with the app subsequently being accessed by more than 3 million people.

And Prof Sarah Walker, Co-theme Lead for Antimicrobial Resistance and Modernising Microbiology at the NIHR Oxford BRC, is the chief investigator of a large population study on COVID-19 antibodies that will help improve understanding around the current rate of infection. The first round of results show that at any given time an average of 0.25% of people had COVID-19 and the incidence rate per week was 0.11 new cases per 100 people.

Preventing transmission

NIHR Health Protection Research Units (HPRUs) - research partnerships between universities and Public Health England - have been at the forefront of research on how to prevent transmission of coronavirus.

National lockdowns have been a key measure in preventing transmission. A study supported by the NIHR Imperial Biomedical Research Centre and the NIHR HPRU in Modelling Methodology estimates national lockdowns have saved more than three million lives in Europe.

The NIHR HPRU in Emergency Preparedness and Response -  a partnership between King’s College London, the University of East Anglia and Public Health England - has undertaken rapid research on how to mitigate the negative effects of quarantine and how to improve our adherence to quarantine. Researchers at this unit are also considering how to safely lift lockdown. Researchers from this group sit on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and advise the UK government on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Research by 

Meanwhile the NIHR HPRU in Behavioural Science and Evaluation has launched a new study to investigate social contact patterns and physical distancing behaviours to help understand how the virus spreads.

HPRUs are also supporting research funded by the NIHR and UKRI. For example, the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Behavioural Science and Evaluation has been part of a rapid adaptation of an evidence-based behaviour change website that has already proven successful in reducing infection transmissions for seasonal and swine flu. The researchers behind the Germ Defence website hope it will help the public move from lockdown measures into a so-called ‘new normal’, where social distancing measures look likely to apply for the foreseeable future. 

How COVID-19 affects different groups

A number of projects are underway by NIHR researchers to understand how COVID-19 affects particular groups of people, including high risk groups like healthcare workers and people of black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background.

Researchers at the NIHR Nottingham BRC are investigating how many healthcare workers have already had COVID-19, as well as if infection is more common depending on any physical characteristics. Their findings will help understand why some people who contract COVID-19 have symptoms and others don’t, and why, out of those who become symptomatic, not all become seriously ill.

A study at the NIHR Leicester BRC is investigating how health, lifestyle and genetics affect people’s likelihood of getting COVID-19, as well as the impact of the pandemic on long-term health conditions. They’re interested in particular in understanding why some people develop more severe COVID-19 than others – particularly those from black and minority ethnic communities.

Also in Leicester, Professor Kamlesh Khunti, director of the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration East Midlands, and other researchers at the NIHR-supported Centre for BME Health have appealed for BAME participants to take part in all COVID-19 research, to help establish why people from BAME populations are at greater risk from coronavirus.

The centre has also developed a selection of resources to help researchers include people from BAME backgrounds in COVID-19 research.

People with serious pre-existing health conditions have been advised to stay at home and shield from the virus during the acute stage of the pandemic. Researchers at the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre are developing a new risk prediction model to more accurately identify those most at risk from coronavirus, rather than using very broad categories such as age or the presence of certain health conditions.

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