Emerging Leaders Prize celebrates outstanding COVID-19 research
Four leading scientists, whose ground-breaking COVID-19 research shaped national and international responses to the pandemic, have been announced today as winners of the Medical Research Foundation’s 2021 Emerging Leaders Prize.
“We are proud to be supporting the next generation of research leaders to build on the knowledge and understanding of COVID-19. Investing in the careers of these outstanding scientists is helping to ensure we are better protected against emerging health threats, as and when they come our way."Dr Angela Hind
Chief Executive of the Medical Research Foundation
With financial support from Pfizer Limited, the Foundation’s 2021 prize awards a total of £400,000 to outstanding researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, King’s College London, the University of Glasgow and the University of Oxford, who have all made a significant impact in the fight against COVID-19.
Scientists from across the world pivoted their research focus to help accelerate our understanding of COVID-19, its effects on the body, and how it can be diagnosed and treated. At record-breaking speed, medical research provided – and continues to provide - the answers to key questions about the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus, along with accurate testing methods, life-saving treatments, protective vaccinations, and policies to keep the most vulnerable safe.
The 2021 Emerging Leaders Prize-winners are as follows:
Dr Rosalind Eggo, Associate Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (£100,000)
Mathematical modelling has been used extensively during the COVID-19 pandemic for planning and decision-making both locally and nationally. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Dr Eggo has used modelling techniques to provide insight on key questions concerning the transmission and control of COVID-19.
These insights have given the UK government vital information on potential interventions, including policy decisions around children’s susceptibility to infection, whether contact tracing can control outbreaks, how transmissible COVID-19 is within households and the wider population, and the potential impact of social distancing interventions on the number of cases and deaths. Dr Eggo’s latest research has focused on the future of COVID-19 and how it could become a permanent feature of our public health landscape.
Dr Eggo said: “My drive is in doing research that has a strong public health impact and uses scientific techniques to provide much-needed insights into the major health threats faced by society today.
“I’m thrilled to receive this funding and excited for the opportunities it is going to provide. I’m going to use this prize funding for a new study to investigate the impact of COVID-19 on the health of people with pre-existing illnesses, such as people who were subject to the shielding policy in the UK.
“This work will increase our understanding of how the shielding strategy - and the pandemic more widely - impacted the physical health of people at very high risk of severe COVID-19 infection.”
Dr Katie Doores, Reader in Molecular Virology, King's College London (£100,000)
Antibodies are an integral part of the body’s immune response to infections and studying how they respond to different viruses is essential in vaccine development. Research in this area has taken on even greater urgency in light of the pandemic.
This includes the research of Dr Doores, who prior to the pandemic focused on understanding how our antibodies respond to lots of different emerging viruses, including HIV.
Within a matter of weeks, Dr Doores refocussed her work to study how our antibodies respond to COVID-19 infection, and more recently COVID-19 vaccination. Her team quickly measured activity of antibodies in the blood of those suffering from COVID-19, tracked the presence of antibodies in the first 10 months following infection, and monitored how new variants impacted the antibody response.
Dr Doores said: “In collaboration with researchers around the country, my research has helped to evaluate and establish the use of lateral flow antibody testing, to help us understand severe COVID-19 disease, and monitor how people with pre-existing conditions like cancer and psoriasis respond to the vaccine.
“Using this prize funding, I will set up two new research techniques in the lab to try and identify antibodies and vaccines that could give broad protection against multiple viruses. Not only is this important in COVID-19, but also in ensuring we are prepared for the next global pandemic – if and when it arises.”
Dr Antonia Ho, Clinical Senior Lecturer, MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (£100,000)
Prior to COVID-19, one of the most common viral infections in the UK was influenza, where many scientists, including Dr Ho, focused their research.
At the start of the pandemic, Dr Ho rapidly transferred her skills and knowledge of flu to lead COVID-19 studies in Malawi and the UK. She identified widespread community transmission in healthcare workers and community members in Malawi during the first wave, resulting in a change in Malawi’s national testing policy.
In addition, as a co-investigator and patient recruitment lead for one of the largest studies of hospitalised COVID-19 patients worldwide, Dr Ho generated an easy-to-use score that can accurately predict the risk of death in hospitalised COVID-19 patients, helping doctors make crucial clinical decisions. This tool has been incorporated into national policy and has been shown to accurately predict COVID-19 deaths in seven other countries.
Dr Ho said: “I feel extremely honoured to be awarded the Emerging Leaders Prize. I will use the funding to generate new knowledge about COVID-19 in African settings, including understanding if prior exposure to other viruses changes the way the immune system responds to COVID-19.
“Understanding what factors determine the disease spectrum of COVID-19 in Africa is crucial to the fundamental understanding of the virus, and will also guide public health measures, optimise vaccination strategies, and inform the management of the next coronavirus pandemic.”
Dr Koen Pouwels, Senior Researcher, Health Economics Research Centre, Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford (£100,000)
Antimicrobial resistance is one of the largest growing threats to human health. Misuse and overuse of antibiotics has led to the growth of drug resistant ‘superbugs’ that mean common illnesses and procedures could become life-threatening in the future.
Before the pandemic, Dr Pouwels was working with Public Health England to optimise antibiotic prescribing in the UK, in order to help tackle antimicrobial resistance. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, he pivoted his expertise to tackling this new global threat to health.
“In April 2020, I co-designed the UK’s national COVID-19 Infection Survey, the largest COVID-19 household survey in the world. Throughout the entire pandemic, we have been sharing weekly reports with the Prime Minister’s Office and key government advisory groups, which has informed vital policies such as the ‘rule of 6’ and the second national lockdown.
“My analyses have also allowed us to monitor local trends in COVID-19 infections and antibody levels, vaccination uptake, and transmissibility of new variants. I also investigated how sewage samples could be used to track COVID-19 infections.
“The Emerging Leaders Prize funding will help me to optimise the design of new and existing surveillance programmes, to make a real difference in how we do surveillance, not just for the current pandemic, but also future pandemics.”
Supporting the next generation of research leaders
Dr Angela Hind, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Foundation, said: “We are proud to be supporting the next generation of research leaders to build on the knowledge and understanding of COVID-19. Investing in the careers of these outstanding scientists is helping to ensure we are better protected against emerging health threats, as and when they come our way.
“Due to the high quality of applicants and the extent of their impact during the pandemic, coupled with the financial support from Pfizer Limited, we are delighted to have been able to double the prize fund this year to allow for four joint 1st place prizes.”
Dr Berkeley Phillips, Medical Director at Pfizer UK, said: “Pfizer UK is proud to support the scientific leaders of tomorrow through this award. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the impact of high-quality research to critical public health decisions. We owe a debt of gratitude to our four winners who dedicated their skills and tenacity to make such an impact to so many. We look forward to seeing their continued impact in the coming years.”
Financial support towards the 2021 Emerging Leaders Prize on COVID-19 research was provided as a Charitable Donation from Pfizer Limited.
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