The Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust

Research and Innovation

Dr Jenny Murira shares her experiences of a year in Covid

24 March 2021

In February 2020, I was working as an infection research fellow mainly running HIV drug trials and flu studies, when our team became aware of COVID-19.  If a novel infection is found, the infection research team who look after ‘sleeping’ PHE studies ‘awaken’.This happened in February 2020. The International Severe Acute Respiratory and emerging Infection Consortium (ISARIC) is an observational study that captures information on hospital admissions with Covid.

In March 2020 it was clear that Covid research was going to become a feature of life for the foreseeable future and all other research was placed on hold. This allowed the pooling of research staff to support Covid research studies. A team was formed overnight which consisted of around 60 research nurses, clinical trials assistants and academic medics that were redeployed to support. The team also had histopathologists, immunologists, sexual health physicians and dentists who come forward to support the research effort. This allowed us to create seven day a week cover for Covid research across two sites.

The RECOVERY trial started in March 2020. Initially, this offered treatments such as dexamethasone and hydroxychloroquine for a condition that had no known effective treatment. Very rapidly, over a two to three month, steroids were shown to be effective through the trial. These steroids became a treatment offered as routine to all those infected with Covid who required oxygen. Hydroxychloroquine was proven not to work; this study continues to enrol It is currently looking at aspirin to reduce blood clots in Covid, baricitinib (a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis) and REGN (synthetic monoclonal antibody treatment against SARS-cov2). 

Across the UK, more than 38,000 people have taken part in RECOVERY trial. Because so many participants are involved, the study is getting definitive answers to whether a treatment works or not. It is the largest study in the world looking at Covid treatment, and is happening in virtually every NHS hospital in the UK.

In Leeds we were involved with the first trials of tocilizumab a drug that has shown benefit in Covid patients who are very unwell. We had a global first with recruitment to the CANCOVID (canakinamab) study. We were the first hospital in the UK to recruit participants in RUXCOVID (ruxolitinib), which happened over one very busy weekend at the beginning of May 2020. 

A study called COVID canines also took place. This aimed to train dogs to detect Covid infection by smell. The study was provided samples including socks, masks and a shirt worn by participants with and without Covid to help train these special Covid sniffer dogs.

In July 2020 my team began working on a research study called SIREN (Sarscov2 Immunity & REinfection EvaluatioN). This clinical trial was developed by Public Health England to investigate COVID-19 reinfection and vaccine effectiveness. This important study looked at the threat posed to staff in hospitals. It was crucial because staff working in hospitals are more likely to be affected by COVID-19. They are at risk as they have higher exposure to COVID-19 and role in transmission of the infection.

Hospital staff in patient facing to non-clinical roles took part in the study. More than 600 staff volunteered to take part from Leeds Teaching Hospital Trust, Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust and Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. Healthcare staff who participated in the study and vaccine trials showed real dedication. They tested themselves for COVID every two weeks, whether or not they had symptoms of COVID-19.

A specialist team was created to process and analyse tests and share the results with staff who took part in the study. Their exceptional work is something that we can be proud of. In February 2021 as a result of the incredible response from staff, Public Health England recognised Leeds Teaching Hospital Trust as one of the most successful recruiters to the study. Our joint work with PHE continues and this will ensure more people can contribute to this important research.

The work of my research team and their contribution to the SIREN study supported the government to develop a roadmap out of the current lockdown in England. The SIREN study gave research teams across the world a better understanding of how infection in COVID-19 works, which is crucial to enabling joined up working, and dealing with new variants.

Image of Dr Murira courtesy of Yorkshire Evening Post, copyright Ernesto Rogata.