The Imperial women tackling COVID-19


Imperial Covid-19 researchers

From vaccine development to mathematical models, these are the Imperial women battling COVID-19.

From modelling the spread and impact of the pandemic to developing a prototype vaccine, the global COVID-19 research effort draws on the expertise of researchers from a range of different disciplines.

Originally planned to celebrate International Women’s Day earlier this month, here we meet some of the Imperial women tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Azra Ghani

Associate Director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease AnalysisAzra Ghani Mathematical models developed by Professor Azra Ghani and colleagues at the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, have played a key role in informing the government’s new and more stringent coronavirus strategy announced on Monday 16 May.

Professor Ghani said: “We’re producing detailed scenarios of what might happen to inform healthcare planning. The nature of the work is quite similar to the 2003 SARS outbreak and 2009 flu pandemic – the characteristics we’re finding for this new COVID-19 are different and perhaps a little bit more worrying.

"Although the case fatality ratio  – the proportion of confirmed cases who sadly die as a result of infection – is significantly lower than SARS, the spread has been much, much greater, so that is concerning, and it is proving somewhat more difficult to contain.

“We now have over 50 scientists – including PhD students and postdocs – working on COVID-19 [within the Centre] just to get the best possible sense of all the scientific information out there,” she adds.

Professor Christl Donnelly

Associate Director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis. She also works at the University of Oxford in the Department of Statistics.   Christl DonnellyProfessor Christl Donnelly works in collaborative groups analysing the transmissibility of the virus that causes COVID-19, the case fatality ratio, the effectiveness of international surveillance and the predicted impacts of control measures among other topics.  

“We send reports of our findings to WHO, UK government departments, as well as other public health partners. Many of our findings are also made public on Imperial’s website with summaries in several languages.

"I have been doing a fair bit of media – TV, radio, newspaper and online outlets, including both live and pre-recorded interviews. My favourite, so far, is being the only guest on the first-ever BBC Coronavirus podcast!

 “I’ve previously worked in teams – large and small – on outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, SARS, pandemic influenza, MERS, Zika, and Ebola.  It is an intense, sometimes draining, way to work, but it is also so impactful.”

Dr Anne Cori

Mathematical and statistical modeller at the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis Anne CoriDr Anne Cori is a lecturer in the School of Public Health's Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology. She worked in January and February – before her maternity leave – on the analysis and modelling of early COVID-19 incidence data.

“It is critical that both the public and decision-makers have accurate information in order to understand the risks posed by this coronavirus and to inform decisions about risk-limiting policies and behaviours.

“The way that we are working is similar to the team working we undertook at Imperial in response to the West African Ebola epidemic between 2014 and 2016 and then for the Ebola epidemics in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2018.

"We bring together an interdisciplinary team and synthesize dynamical and statistical techniques to get the greatest insights into transmission and control.”

Professor Wendy Barclay

Action Medical Research Chair in Virology, Department of Infectious DiseaseWendy BarclayProfessor Wendy Barclay pioneers work into how respiratory viruses like influenza spread, and is spear-heading efforts to apply this knowledge to COVID-19. Professor Barclay has worked extensively with the media, providing expert comment in a number of outlets such as New Scientist, BBC World at One, and The Times.

“We have known since the outbreak of SARS in the early 2000s that many coronaviruses exist in the world in bats. The virus takes its name from the shape of the spikes that help it latch on to cells — under a microscope it looks as though it is wearing a crown.

 “It does not cause a huge amount of disease in the bats and many different strains have been identified. Most likely this new one, now named COVID-19, is a recombinant (merger) of two bat viruses. But it is not clear whether it came directly from bats to humans or whether there was an intermediate host.”

Rebecca Frise

Research technician in Professor Wendy Barclay's Influenza Group.Rebecca FriseRebecca is part of a team that aims to understand how SARS-CoV2 – the virus that caused COVID-19 – is able to transmit using an animal model. Further understanding of the transmission and pathology of the virus would be valuable in the development of therapeutic and preventative strategies. 

“Initially I thought collaboration between countries and labs would be difficult but I have seen a united front which is very encouraging in combating SARS-CoV2.”

Dr Anna Blakney

Post-doctoral research fellow based at the Section of Mucosal Infection and Immunity, Department of Infectious Diseases.Anna BlakneyDr Anna Blakney is part of Professor Robin Shattock’s group who has developed a prototype vaccine for COVID-19. The team took a record 14 days to get from the genetic sequencing of the virus to generating the trial vaccine in the lab. The prototype vaccine is currently being trailed in animal models.

Dr Blakney said: “I work on the development of self-amplifying RNA vaccines for the prevention of infectious diseases, specifically engineering both the RNA – the virus's genetic code – and the delivery platform to improve the immune response. While this platform can be used for a wide array of pathogens it’s particularly useful for making vaccines in an outbreak because it’s relatively fast and inexpensive to produce.

This outbreak has brought the importance of epidemiology and vaccine research to the fore, and this will not be the last time we are faced with this type of crises. More preparation and investment are needed in these areas but I'm incredibly excited to be working in a field which can have such a profound impact on the lives of so many and the health of our communities.”

Image of Prof Azra Ghani: M. Henley/ WHO


Ellyw Evans

Ellyw Evans
Faculty of Medicine Centre

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