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Cambridge University Science Magazine
The narrow, cobbled streets of Cambridge—usually bustling with students, fellows, staff, and tourists alike—have recently fallen silent in an effort to curb the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many of the doors to laboratories and offices have been shut and life, as researchers know it, halted, the pace of scientific progress has been anything but slowed. Instead, researchers in Cambridge have found a common enemy in SARS-CoV-2, and departments all over the university have come together to contribute to the steadily growing global understanding of the virus.

Old dog, new tricks

The earliest days of the UK lockdown were filled with hastily cleared desks and a mass exodus of office supplies. Amidst this flurry, Cambridge infectious disease specialists recognised prompt and thorough testing as essential to tackling the pandemic and quickly began to repurpose emptying research labs into SARS-CoV-2 testing facilities. A call to arms in late March was answered by over 1200 volunteers across the university and a task force, led by Professor Ian Goodfellow at the Department of Pathology, was assembled to start processing samples as part of the national COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium (headed by our own Professor Sharon Peacock at the Department of Medicine)[1]. “We’ve been able to go from a standing start to producing viral sequences within 24 hours,” said Goodfellow, “Rapid wide-spread testing of the community is the biggest challenge we face relating to this pandemic”.

As hospitals adapt to a growing number of infected patients, researchers have responded by repurposing the SAMBA II - a diagnostic machine originally developed by a Cambridge University spin-off company as a rapid diagnostic for HIV - for SARS-CoV-2 detection, increasing the speed of diagnostics even further[2]. The machine uses a PCR-based amplification approach to detect viral material in a sample in under 90 minutes and is hoped to serve as point-of-care testing to protect and isolate suspected cases of COVID-19. A clinical trial, led by Professor Ravi Gupta of the Department of Medicine, launched earlier this month to test the machine’s performance at Addenbrookes hospital. Gupta is optimistic the test will make an important difference in tackling the virus, telling the BBC that “rapidly diagnosing patients with or without COVID-19 will enable us to triage much more effectively the front door which is critical to maintaining safe & effective care for these individuals”.

And it’s not just biologists who are finding inventive ways to combat the pandemic.

Across the river in West Cambridge, retooling has again been employed, this time with common low-cost materials being used to manufacture low-cost ventilators for low and middle-income countries. Along with local clinical partners in a number of African countries, a team at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology have developed open-source ventilators (OVSI) that can be assembled at a fraction of the cost of a full-price ventilator, proving essential for use in nations where existing limited ventilator capacity will be quickly overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases[3].

Returning centrally to the Sidgwick site, researchers from the Department of Economics have been using novel and existing demographic data to model the impact the pandemic has had on the economy, and how these effects may extend long past the termination of a lockdown. A study led by Professor Vasco Carvalho was one of the first to describe the economic impact of a stay-at-home order, profiling how spending habits have shifted by examining over 1.4 billion credit card interactions in Spain in early March[4]. Another study argues that public health and economic impact do not exist as a tradeoff, but are instead coupled, using US demographics to show that tiered lockdown relaxations for sectors of the workforce can reduce both overall economic impact and infection rates[5].

Building lasting resources

Globally, researchers are demonstrating the importance of borrowing and re-purposing existing knowledge in order to understand and combat SARS-CoV-2. This has highlighted the imperativeness of proper documentation and record-keeping as future scientists seek to prevent or safeguard against prospective emergency situations such as another pandemic.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton is collecting the genetic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as part of a growing resource for researchers to understand not only how and where the virus spread, but its biological properties and pathology[6]. As one of the largest centres for genomic sequencing in Europe, the Institute has rapidly redirected its sequencing power to serve as a centralised hub for sequencing samples collected by “Lighthouse labs”; large sample-processing facilities set up to collect swabs sent in from drive-through testing centres across the UK. It is hoped that such a resource will continue to prove fruitful as researchers retrospectively reconstruct the proceedings of the pandemic and assess the usefulness of public health strategies.

Apart from the research findings being constantly churned from all departments of the University, perhaps the most exhaustive accounts of the pandemic will be collected by the University Library Archive, who are collating as many personal records pertaining to the pandemic as they can, including how all members of the University are responding and adapting[7]. Curators Caylin Smith and Jacky Cox hope that this COVID-19 collection will serve as a rich resource for future study, as well as a permanent record of how the pandemic united researchers, students, and staff from across the University towards a single goal.

Juli Cudini is a 3rd year PhD student at the Wellcome Sanger Institute studying infectious disease genomics, and is Finance Officer for BlueSci.