Midlands universities awarded more than £20 million in Covid-19 research funding

Photo shows: University of Warwick
Warwick University

Eight of the Midlands’ most research-intensive universities are undertaking key research to support the country’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Academics at the universities of Aston, Birmingham, Cranfield, Keele, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick – all partners in Midlands Innovation (MI), a collaboration of the region’s top research universities – are undertaking research to answer some of the many unknown questions which have been thrust to the fore as a result of the pandemic.

Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, academics across MI institutions have been undertaking research which aims to address many of the complicated and varied areas of research required to tackle the full impact of the virus, not only in the UK, but throughout the world.

In total more than £20m of research funding that MI partners have received is now focused on Covid-19 related topics, of this two thirds (£16m) is newly funded research, and the remainder has allowed existing research to be expanded to include the emerging implications of the pandemic.

The topics that the research addresses are broad and range from drug trials for new Covid-19 treatments to assessing how best to support social workers to keep children safe whilst social distancing measures are in place, and looking at how the pandemic has affected businesses and forced a change in the way criminals operate – including those involved in drug-trafficking across ‘county lines’.

All eight members of Midlands Innovation are contributing to the research effort directed at fighting Covid-19 and understanding the impacts of the pandemic on society, as well as providing economic research to public bodies to help them formulate new policies to the Government and the Bank of England, for example.

Professor Sally Singh of the University of Leicester is working with national clinical leaders to build the ground-breaking ‘Your Covid Recovery’ online service and is now working with the NHS nationally to roll it out across the country.

The new Your COVID Recovery service forms part of NHS plans to expand access to COVID-19 rehabilitation treatments for those who have survived the virus but still have problems with breathing, mental health problems or other complications. While the University of Birmingham is undertaking joint research to improve COVID-19 antibody diagnosis.

Midlands Innovation partners are working alongside the Midlands Health Alliance NHS Trusts to lead some of the nation’s vital clinical trials work, including the NIHR funded and University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust led Patient Recruitment Centre. The £7M award is funding five new centres across the country, including one in Leicester. The new centres will ensure that patients can more easily participate in clinical trials of potential Covid treatments. The centre in Leicester will undertake the first Covid vaccine trials in the Midlands.

Dr William van’t Hoff, Chief Executive of the NIHR Clinical Research Network, said: “The importance of clinical research has never been more evident. These centres now give us a further dimension and opportunity to offer large scale trials and to help deliver those at pace and scale. Looking further, they will help us build on our position as a great country to support life-sciences research.”

In another research project – this time focused on the UK’s Small and Medium Enterprises which make up 99.9% of UK business, Professor Prasanta Kumar Dey of Aston University has drawn together a team of three MI partners – the universities of Aston, Birmingham, and Keele, with the University of York, to develop a framework for SMEs to be able to support the wellbeing and mental health of their employees to increase productivity. The number of people employed by SMEs across the whole of the country stands at 16 million people.

The project will pilot interventions that address employee wellbeing and mental health with 20 SMEs.  Talking about the research, Professor Dey said: “This project builds upon pilot work funded by Midlands Innovation, which means that we have a well-established collaboration through which to deliver the work. The pandemic presents a real threat to small and medium sized enterprises’ workforce mental health and well-being, and employers need to pursue serious plans to support their workforce. Through this project, we hope to build evidence from a multi-disciplinary perspective on the best ways for SMEs to support their staff and enhance their productivity. The project will also give an opportunity to strengthen links with my Midlands Innovation colleagues.”

Researchers from MI Partners the Universities of Warwick and Nottingham are investigating the underlying disease function changes of Covid-19 to develop appropriate strategies for ventilating patients’ lungs.  The project team will adapt state-of-the-art computer simulators to investigate a range of issues that are specific to the mechanical ventilation of Covid-19 patients.

Professor of Bioengineering, Declan Bates, of the University of Warwick, said: “Working with Midlands Innovation colleagues at the University of Nottingham we hope that we can shed new light on the best way to use mechanical ventilation to support those being treated for Covid-19. At present guidance provided to Doctors suggests using a standard method, but we want to investigate whether we can find a more tailored solution which will better support the treatment of patients.”

Research being undertaken at Loughborough University includes that which is exploring the impact on the country’s so-called ‘gig economy’, the aim of the research is to understand how the pandemic has exacerbated workers’ vulnerabilities to labour exploitation and slavery. Such knowledge will be critical in developing further governmental and third sector strategies that reduce workers’ vulnerability and enhance their rights and protection during and post-Covid-19.

Cranfield University is seizing on the impact of measures to reduce the spread of Covid to research their impact on air quality. Prior to lockdown, air quality levels in many UK cities regularly exceeded set targets, and with more growth planned in regions which could further challenge the ability to maintain those targets, the university is utilising its campus and the surrounding area to understand in real-time the impact on air quality on the changes as they take place. The study, only possible due to the unprecedented impact of lockdown, will support future infrastructure planning in the area and the design of Low Emission Zones and air quality policies.

Professor Tom Stephenson, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Cranfield University and Chair of the Midlands Innovation Operating Board, said: “The breadth of the research that Midlands Innovation partners are undertaking has shown how quickly and effectively they have acted to support, not only this country, but many other areas around the world, to undertake research which could help tackle not just the virus, but the vast spectrum of issues it has created.

“From research which will provide policy makers with the best and most up-to-date information available to help inform their strategies, to delivering trials of vaccines to Covid patients in hospitals, and from the impact on the UK’s vital charity sector to how we can better support community pharmacies to cope should a second wave of the virus occur.

“Midlands Innovation is a collaboration of the region’s most research intensive universities, and it’s that longstanding collaboration which has also shown that partners have been more easily able to undertake more research by working in collaboration too.”