Imperial College London

President Alice Gast hosts panel discussion with three top COVID-19 scientists


Panel discussion on COVID-19 hosted by Imperial President Alice Gast

Hosted by President Alice Gast, three leading scientists discuss vaccines, immunity and Imperial’s contribution to the fight against the deadly virus.

What do we know about variants of the virus? How do we improve outcomes for patients hospitalised with COVID-19? Is a 12-week gap between vaccinations effective? There are still so many questions around COVID-19, but the Imperial community is working hard to provide answers.

Opening the event, Professor Alice Gast, President of Imperial, said: “Imperial College London has been remarkable throughout the pandemic, not only understanding, modelling and treating the disease, but also producing leading new testing technologies, and an exciting new self-amplifying RNA vaccine platform, and myriad innovations and discoveries that are helping people, communities and society.” 

A well organised and balanced presentation from self-evident world experts that provided confidence in the research taking place at Imperial and elsewhere to inform technological, medical and policy decisions. Dr Clive Harries (PhD Mechanical Engineering 1983) GP and Clinical Commissioning Lead in Yorkshire

Throughout the pandemic, Imperial has made extensive efforts to provide our friends and alumni with direct access to the scientists at the forefront of COVID-19 research.

During the event, hosted by President Alice Gast, Professors Peter Openshaw, Steven Riley and Wendy Barclay shared their views on vaccines and explained how their research contributes to global efforts.

The audience of 500 alumni, supporters and staff also had the chance to ask the panel questions.

For anyone who missed the event, the recording is now available to view online, and responses to the most-asked questions the scientists didn’t have time to answer live can be found below.

Meet the experts

Professor Peter Openshaw, expert in respiratory medicine and immunology, studies the clinical behaviour of the virus. Professor Openshaw opened the discussion by explaining how he examines the pathology, immune response and treatment options. He shared his insights on what he feels has contributed to the fall in mortality of hospitalised patients from 30% in the initial stage of the pandemic, to around 12% currently.  

It is exciting as an immunologist to see such a fast roll out of vaccines and the plethora of vaccines offered by different companies. Professor Peter Openshaw National Heart and Lung Institute

The audience also listened to insights from Professor Steven Riley who specialises in infectious disease dynamics and is part of the REACT Study (REal-time Assessment of Community Transmission), which is key for understanding how the disease is spreading. Through the study, Professor Riley and his colleagues have collected tests from over 1.3 million people in the UK to offer key decision makers timely information and clarity on the rate of infection. 

Finally, attendees heard from world-leading virologist Professor Wendy Barclay. She shared a fascinating electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 and explained what we know about the mutations of the virus so far. Professor Barclay told the audience, “From my point of view, as someone who’s worked on influenza virus for the last 20 or 30 years, I think RNA vaccines will really transform what we do with influenza. We'll be able to respond so much more quickly to changes in viruses.”

Watch the event online now

Wendy Barclay, Peter Openshaw, and Steven Riley, President Alice Gast discussed the big questions the world is now asking about COVID-19 in this Global Imperial event.

Celebrating collaboration

In unprecedented times, the Imperial community has collaborated, combined expertise and made a significant contribution to global efforts from the computer to the bedside.

President Alice Gast said: “We're going to continue to make a big difference in the world through our Institute of Infection, our Containment Level 3 laboratories, and the collaboration between colleagues from different backgrounds and disciplines.”

I’m really optimistic that the ability to put research immediately into action for major problems like this can make a big difference. Professor Alice Gast President of Imperial College London

Imperial’s Institute of Infection will unite experts from across the College and our partner networks to apply a collaborative, holistic approach to the study of major global infectious disease threats that touches on every aspect of infection, from the molecular to the societal level. By supporting the very best fundamental research, we will gain deeper insights into all aspects of infection and the processes that underpin it.

President Alice Gast ended the panel discussion by encouraging the experts to share something positive learnt from COVID-19. Then she continued to tell the audience, “The good news is we have fantastic people like Peter, Wendy and Steven working on this. They took their research and focused immediately on COVID-19 and how to understand it.”

Responding to audience questions

With so many questions coming in during the event, the panel was unable to answer them all live. You’ll find below their answers to the most commonly asked questions.

What lessons can we learn from this pandemic to guide changes in public health policy and practice and social behaviour to prevent or minimize the impact of the next pandemic?

Professor Wendy Barclay: I think we have learned that acting fast is key - early measures to limit virus spread and perhaps incentives for people to adhere to isolation. I am hopeful that new vaccine technologies will enable us to respond even more quickly in future.

How does the REACT study compare to the ONS one which has 1.5m participants?

Professor Steven Riley: REACT uses a random selection of people at each study, whereas ONS is a longitudinal study that goes back to the same people each time. The REACT study sends out around 190,000 test kits each time, and overall has tested more than one million people.

Will the virus eventually end up like the common cold?

Professor Wendy Barclay: Perhaps, the virus will eventually cause less disease, if young people are infected early in life and retain T cell immunity that can attenuate the disease from a later infection. Additionally, the virus might eventually mutate in ways that make it less virulent but maintain or increase transmission.

Are you seeing a difference in symptoms between the variants?

Professor Peter Openshaw: There is some suggestion of less loss of smell with new variants and the ONS has published data suggesting some small differences in the frequency of symptoms. It is not clear if this is because people with B.1.1.7 present earlier.

What are the trade-offs between vaccinating a large portion of the population at a lower efficacy versus half the number at higher efficacy? How does that change with the prevalence of a virus?

Professor Steven Riley: The trade-off depends mainly on how much protection people get with the first dose. If they get .90% with the first dose and then .95% with the second, then it’s much more efficient to have twice the people at 90% compared to half the people at 95%. With the current COVID-19 vaccines, it’s not quite that simple, because we don't know how long the single-dose protection will last... so in effect, it might not actually be 90% versus 95%. However, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA, the UK regulator) and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI, the UK vaccine advice committee) both took the view that the Pfizer vaccine was very good off just one dose. We will be watching the data closely to see that this is the case. The idea of dose sparing has been used many times in emergency settings, for example, yellow fever.

How effective is vaccination if two different vaccines are used for the first and second doses?

Professor Peter Openshaw: We do not yet know since this has not been tested but will be trialled in the UK in the coming months in a randomized trial. We are seeing large boosts in antibodies in people who have been previously infected and then received one vaccine and this is encouraging for a heterologous prime-boost strategy. There are studies in mice that show benefits from mixed prime-boost schedules.

Find out more about Imperial's work to combat COVID-19.


Tina Schmechel

Tina Schmechel

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Vaccines, Global-health, Coronavirus
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