The importance of team science for tackling COVID-19

August 4, 2021
Joanna Jenkinson

Our new GW4 Director, Dr Joanna Jenkinson, explains what it feels like to receive an MBE award in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list for her work on the COVID-19 pandemic while at The Medical Research Council, and how she nearly missed the all important email. 

At first, I wasn’t entirely convinced it was real, as I looked at the obscure email with an attachment. Which I nearly missed as it was first sent to my Medical Research Council (MRC) account the day after I left my previous job as Head of Infections and Immunity.

By the time I received the email in my new GW4 Alliance account, I had only 24 hours left on the deadline to reply. In the rush to print the form and send it back, there was little time to fully grasp the reality of it.

In the weeks that followed, it still felt unreal since I couldn’t really tell anyone anything. It still feels a bit surreal now even after the announcement of being awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Rapid research funding efforts

This award has meant a great deal to me personally: I think it’s finally convinced my parents that leaving the lab to become a research funder wasn’t the worst decision. But it’s still an odd feeling. At the end of day, all I did was done from behind a computer. It was all emails and Zoom meetings. It wasn’t on the front line. I wasn’t putting myself at risk like so many people have, and so, it’s a bit strange.

In reality, this award for services to COVID-19 research funding is not just in recognition of my work. It recognises the efforts of my MRC team and colleagues, like Anna Kinsey. It recognises collaborators at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), and the amazing scientists who worked day and night throughout this pandemic.

Together we designed and delivered the crucial initial calls to launch the joint NIHR-UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) rapid research response initiative to address the COVID-19 pandemic. We launched the first funding call within days of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International concern on 30 January 2020.

By mid-March, we had reviewed 275 funding applications and awarded £25 million to 27 research projects closely linked to the WHO COVID-19 research priorities and which would deliver public health impact within the next 18 months.

As the call evolved to a rolling process, we managed weekly panel meetings through to July. We reviewed around 1000 applications with turnaround times as short as a couple of days in some cases, thanks to our committed College of Experts and Panel. We looked at gaps in knowledge and delivered highlight notices in ethnicity, transmission and mental health, working with the community to develop a UK consortium in immunology and a post-hospitalisation cohort.

A strong base for team science to thrive

This award recognizes the importance of team science, not just for tackling COVID-19, but many other diseases.

The science and research community’s quick response to the COVID-19 pandemic was built on the foundation of decades of work in epidemic preparedness and long-term investments by MRC and UKRI.

It is those investments that ultimately enabled the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to exist. There are many lessons to be learned from this pandemic, but I think one of the things that’s really made a difference are those long-term investments. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve everything we have if there weren’t all the scientists and infrastructures in place.

Life-saving results

During the 60 to 80-hour work weeks, for six months, it was not always easy to stop and lift our heads up to look at the fruits of our labour.

There was one moment, when I saw the press release that was going to come out for the dexamethasone (the first COVID-19 treatment) result. This showed that the drug was saving the lives of a third of people who were on ventilation.

That was a special moment, to be able to think, we can do this! It was a testament to the research and innovation we have in the UK, and what we can achieve together through science.

 

This article was originally published on the UKRI MRC Blog website.