How did scientists deal with Covid so quickly? Because they came together Coronavirus

Tthe raw numbers around Covid-19 are simply amazing considering that it was a disease that almost no one heard of in December 2019. At the time of writing, about 240,000 people in the UK have been admitted to hospital with Covid this year. – 19, and more than 70,000 people have Covid-19 listed as the cause of death on the death certificate.

I started 2020 worried about reports coming out of Wuhan: they seemed to imply an asymptomatic transmission of a respiratory pathogen that was severe enough to place patients in intensive care units. I am a clinical academician with specialist training in respiratory and intensive care medicine; I also run a research program that focuses on pneumonia caused by respiratory infections – to me and others what was reported seemed like serious trouble.

In response to the outbreak of Sars-CoV-2, a World Health Organization clinical characterization study was activated on January 17, 2020, at a time when the first wave of Covid-19 patients was being admitted to hospitals in England and Wales. This observational study on patients was first established in 2013 to ensure the availability of the necessary infrastructure to learn about the rapid spread of new respiratory infections when needed. The first confirmed patient with Covid-19 in the UK was reported on 31 January 2020.

At the beginning of February, it was clear that there was a serious problem, and the ICU where I work began to prepare for what could happen to us. We held the first multidisciplinary meeting to discuss how we would manage the emerging threat, and colleagues from public health, virology, microbiology, and others joined us on February 12th. To date, 10 reported cases of Sars-CoV-2 have been reported in the UK.

Things progressed quickly, and March was a creepy month for Britain’s response to the emerging pandemic. There were concerns that the situation could become so bad that the UK would be left without vital equipment such as mechanical fans, resulting in the government launching the Fan Challenge to seek, approve and manufacture the device from a wide range of sources. Much has been written about this process, but I’m sure it was needed – I wouldn’t have agreed to help with that endeavor if I hadn’t.

A recovery trial was also launched in March. Confirmation of the reaction of the British research system in the face of the pandemic is that by March 17, the trial was designed, received ethical and regulatory approval and was ready to start recruiting patients. Since then, more than 20,000 people have participated to help us understand which therapies are working on hospitalized patients with Covid-19 – a phenomenal achievement.

By April we were at the height of a wave of one of the pandemics, and ICUs in many areas were under great strain. On April 12, there were 3,301 people with Covid-19 in the UK who needed mechanical ventilation. Fortunately, by August this number had dropped to less than 70. However, by the end of October it had climbed above 1,000 again, where it had remained, and is currently showing few signs of easing. Clearly, Covid-19 is not over with us yet.

In the fall, data emerged suggesting that what many considered almost impossible had actually been achieved – a multi-effective vaccine against Sars-CoV-2 was developed in less than 12 months. In December 2020, a mass vaccination program was launched in the UK starting with 50 NHS hospitals.

Such a turbulent and difficult period leads you to reconsider the events and your role in them. I learned something special this year: before 2020, I never wrote a newspaper article, appeared on television, or even talked to a journalist about my work. I am embarrassed to admit, I have not failed to understand the importance of imparting science to a wider audience. A torrent of noise and misinformation during the pandemic changed my view and persuaded me to start trying to explain these issues more clearly. It’s not always easy to understand, but we need to make it clear why the availability of specialist health care staff (not beds) is important and why we need therapies and vaccines for Covid-19, among many other issues.

This year has also reinforced my view that building global, national and local resilience to health care requires long-term commitment and planning. For the NHS, this means that we must provide the appropriate professional staff, equipment and other infrastructure to deal with the storms we may face – with coronavirus and beyond. No one can honestly say that the UK sailed until 2020 without having to make tough choices and compromises we’d rather not face – the impact of the pandemic on providing health care for people without Covid’s disease has been and continues to be be, significantly. Many times this year, clinicians, patients, families, policymakers and politicians have faced the need to choose the least bad option in difficult circumstances. No one is immune to this.

Most of the “wins” this year come from preparedness and collaboration. One example of this is the incredible contribution of the National Institutes of Health (NIHR) to the British pandemic response. It enabled us to quickly learn about Covid-19 by supporting employment in observational studies such as Isaric-4C (WHO Covid-19 study described above), React (Covid-19 home testing study) and GenoMICC (Global Critical Disease Understanding Initiative), and has offered thousands of people the opportunity to participate in clinical trials of therapies and vaccines. This work has helped change clinical practice around the world by providing important research.

As we move towards 2021, I again feel worried about what the new year might have. However, I am convinced that a willingness, flexibility and commitment to work together is what it takes to overcome the storms we will face in the coming months and years.

• Dr. Charlotte Summers is a lecturer in intensive care medicine at the University of Cambridge

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