What Role is Higher Education Playing in the Search for a Coronavirus Vaccine and Treatments?

As the coronavirus continues to disrupt the lives of people across the globe, higher education institutions are joining the search for solutions.  

With the onset of the coronavirus crisis, university campuses began to close to prevent further spread of the coronavirus and to protect staff and students.  

This also meant the closure of campus laboratories and university research institutes, forcing much of the work taking place in these environments to be put on hold. 

In March, evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski made the decision to pause the 32-year experiment he was conducting at Michigan State University to reduce the risk of infection to his staff. 

He told Science“I didn’t want people responsible for doing this daily work [of maintaining the bacteria] to feel a pressure to come in when they might not be feeling well. 

While Lenski could simply freeze the bacteria under investigation for any period necessarynot all research projects had the same level of flexibility.  

A team led by epidemiologist Camila González-Beiras of the Fight AIDS and Infectious Diseases Foundation was unable to conduct its current project as planned, due to its dependence on international travel.  

While this period has been a huge blow for research taking place at universities, an opportunity has also arisen for these efforts to be redirected to the coronavirus pandemic, and for the higher education sector to play a crucial role in the hunt for a vaccine and treatments. 

Many universities not only have world-class equipment and resources to hand, but also the expertise and connections needed to propel research efforts forward.  

This makes them the perfect environment to discover more about COVID-19 and to develop treatments that will help protect people and prevent suffering.  

According to the World Health Organization, there are currently 170 candidate vaccines across the world, with nine of these in phase three of the process, which involves large-scale efficacy trials.  

There are several universities participating in these trials, with the University of Oxford in the UK trialing one of the nine vaccines currently in stage three.  

According to the university’s coronavirus research team, the vaccine research is part of their work on long-term and short-term priorities that will help to both “control the outbreak” and “save lives now.” 

Further progress was made in the search for a vaccine oJuly 13, when the University of QueenslandAustralia, made the announcement that they would be giving healthy adult volunteers the first dose of the vaccine they had been developing. 

The university has also been working on global survey involving patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 to discover how the coronavirus impacts taste and smell.  

In South Africa, the University of Cape Town is currently conducting vital research with the South African National Blood Service into possible treatments of coronavirus.  

According to The Lanceta trial is underway in South Africa to investigate the effectiveness and safety of using plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 as a treatment for patients with moderate to severe COVID-19 pneumonia.” 

While the focus of higher education institutions has been on how they can contribute to the search for treatments and preventative measures against the coronavirus, they have also had to consider how this can be done safely.  

Mike Turner, Director of Science at Wellcome, told nature that those who do need to attend labs in-person must comply with their institution’s safety regulations.  

These include a “buddy system” whereby staff work in groups of at least two for safety, and to ensure that social distancing is still complied with in the lab as much as possible. 

Turner added: “If your work is contributing to [research against] COVID-19, we applaud you, and please carry on. If it’s not, ask ‘is it absolutely essential?’” 

For more information on how the higher education sector is responding to the coronavirus outbreak, please see our latest report: September 2020 and Beyond: Coronavirus Insights from Current and Prospective International Students

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