The interlinked stories of four Hughes Hall researchers – two Fellows, a Research Associate and a Student, each supporting efforts to tackle the pandemic in different ways – embody the multi-disciplinary and translational values we strive to embrace. With funding from the College’s partner organisation, Cambridge-Africa, three projects are contributing to changing lives around the world.
Cambridge-Africa is a University programme that supports African researchers and promotes collaborations and equitable partnerships between Africa and Cambridge. During April and May last year, their ALBORADA Research Fund COVID-19 Emergency Awards funded projects to rapidly respond to COVID-19 in Africa. We meet the Centre’s Director and the researchers involved.
Caroline is Academic Director of Cambridge-Africa, a Principal Research Associate in Epidemiology and a Hughes Hall Governing Body Fellow. She ran the ALBORADA Research Fund emergency scheme last year which funded 16 projects supporting the COVID response in nine African countries.
Caroline’s own recent research has focused on the COVID-19 collateral impacts on immunisation for meningitis.
“We have shown that in the UK, lockdown effects have likely dampened transmission of the bacteria that cause meningitis more than enough to counter any falls in immunisation. In many African countries, we predict that the success of previous campaigns should be enough to sustain protection even if routine immunisation uptake falls in the short term.”
Caroline’s work has also received media coverage during 2021, following publication in The Lancet of a study she co-authored concluding that, from 2000 to 2030, vaccination against 10 major diseases, including measles, HPV, rotavirus, rubella, yellow fever and hepatitis B, will have prevented 69 million deaths in low-income and middle-income countries. Her work suggests mortality from the 10 diseases in this age group would be 45% higher than currently observed in the absence of vaccination.
She said: “There has been a much-needed investment in childhood vaccination programmes in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs) and this has led to an increase in the number of children vaccinated. To inform future investment and ensure it continues we need to evaluate the impact of these programmes on public health.”
Nidhi is a Professor of Disability and Inclusive Education and a Hughes Hall Fellow. Her joint project with Dr Eric Umar, University of Malawi, titled Equity re-examined: Children with disabilities and their education during COVID-19 in Malawi was supported by a Cambridge-Africa ALBORADA Research Fund COVID-19 Emergency Award.
The COVID-19 crisis is having a significant impact across the world. As of April 2020, UNESCO reported that 1.6 billion learners (nearly 9 out of 10 children) are out of school worldwide due to the school closures. In Africa, almost all learners, both in schools and universities, have been affected by the pandemic. In Malawi, it is estimated that almost six million school-going children have been home since 23 March due to the Government of Malawi’s Coronavirus disease prevention measures with the aim to prevent the spread of the virus (UNICEF, 2020). While various efforts are being made to support children’s learning through the development of radio, television and online materials, there is little evidence of catering to the specific needs of children with disabilities. This is an important exclusion that needs to be addressed.
Early on in the pandemic, having worked with the World Bank in putting together an issues paper titled, “Pivoting to Inclusion: Leveraging Lessons from the COVID-19 Crisis for Learners with Disabilities”, which has received significant international coverage, Nidhi notes that “if specific efforts are not made to include children with disabilities through accessible learning delivery programmes and in post recovery plans then the many gains that have been made in increasing educational enrolment at primary level prior to COVID-19 will be lost”.
She goes on to add that “in many countries, including Malawi, simply focusing on learning losses is not good enough, we need to take into account the significant social and emotional impact that prolonged school closures are having on children, including those with disabilities. Schools are not simply spaces for formal learning, but they are vital for socialisation, peer play and engagement”
This research has significance in managing the current crisis and in the period of education recovery.
Ellen is a Hughes Hall Research Associate in the Department of Medicine working on two COVID-19 related projects. She said: “My colleagues and I were funded by Cambridge-Africa to support capacity building for COVID diagnostics with collaborators in the DRC and Madagascar. In addition, I am working with colleagues at the International Vaccine Institute in Korea on two large COVID surveillance projects in Madagascar and Burkina Faso, which were funded by the Swedish government.”
The ALBORADA grants were originally awarded to increase COVID diagnostics capacity in DRC and Madagascar. In DRC, they used the equipment and consumables that were purchased to set up a new diagnostics laboratory at the University. This lab is now up and running, and the staff are validating the qPCR so that they can begin testing soon. “This is all the more important now, as increasing numbers of cases in the DRC suggest the start of the second wave” said Ellen.
For Madagascar, the ALBORADA funds have supported the purchasing of equipment and consumables for a new molecular diagnostics laboratory at the Université d’Antananarivo. In collaboration with IVI (International Vaccine Institute, Korea), additional funds were sourced from the Swedish government to increase the numbers of tests that could be done and broaden the scope of COVID research in Madagascar. COVIA Madagascar is a surveillance project assessing the COVID burden in three rural areas outside Antananarivo (Imerintsiatosika, Ampefy and Andina).
Ellen told us about the project: “Within COVIA we are equipping rural health centres with rapid antigen test kits and qPCR sample collection kits to determine the number of active cases, and also conducting a serosurvey to determine what percentage of the population have COVID antibodies. The laboratory supplies for Madagascar were delivered just after Christmas, and we are hopeful of beginning online training next week.”
Ellen reflected on the work: “Although this has been a very tough year for all of us and this is absolutely not what I was expecting to be doing this year, it was fantastic to have the opportunity to support laboratory capacity building with our collaborators in DRC and Madagascar. These new molecular diagnostic labs will have utility far beyond COVID, and we feel very lucky to have been able to receive this funding and work with our colleagues overseas to implement something which we hope will have long lasting benefits.”
Ernest is a Hughes Hall postgraduate and Cambridge-Africa Scholar with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Maiduguri in Nigeria and a research-based MPhil in Veterinary Science from the University of Cambridge. Cambridge-Africa’s PhD Scholarship Scheme provides funding to enable five outstanding applicants per year from sub-Saharan African countries to study for PhDs at Cambridge on projects that focus on African priorities.
Ernest is currently working on a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development project at the Department of Veterinary Medicine. His role involves accessing immune responses generated by vaccine candidates.
He told us more about his work: “I volunteered as a visiting researcher to join the COVID-19 vaccine development work going on at the Department of Veterinary Medicine in June last year. Depending on how the work develops, it may form part of my PhD but I currently consider it a side project.”
“The COVID-19 vaccines developed at the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics are first tested in animals for their ability to generate immune responses that would kill or neutralize SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses. Using tissues from vaccinated animals, Ernest ‘screens’ candidate vaccines for the ability to generate immune cells that will recognise parts of the virus and potentially kill it.
“I perform this ‘screening’ using two main experimental techniques: Enzyme Linked ImmunoSpot (ELISpot) assay and Flow Cytometry. I also perform similar experiments using human blood samples from COVID-19 survivors and exposed individuals. This is a separate project with different groups within the university and Papworth Hospital as collaborators. The aim is to better understand how the body reacts to the virus which will then feed into medical countermeasures against the virus,” explained Ernest.
A notable advantage of one of the vaccines being developed by our group is its potential to protect against multiple coronaviruses. It is therefore a vaccine not only for the current pandemic but for future outbreaks by similar coronaviruses to SARS-1 and SARS-CoV-2. The group has identified the most promising vaccines based on experiments in animals and will be progressing to human clinical trials. In the longer term, this work promises to lead to a better understanding of COVID-19 disease and the development of a range of medical countermeasures.
Join Caroline Trotter ‘in conversation’ with Ernest Aguinam on 11th March 2021, 5.00 – 6.00 pm. Click here for details: Supporting African researchers through Cambridge Africa.
With many thanks to Ernest, Ellen, Nidhi and Caroline for sharing details of their work and experiences during the pandemic.
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