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How the Crick took on coronavirus: highlights from our latest live panel discussion

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by Cancer Research UK | Philanthropy and partnerships

1 December 2020

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Sir Paul Nurse
Francis Crick Institute director

Our latest virtual event was brought to listeners live from the Francis Crick Institute, which we help to fund. Here, Eddie Bowers captures the highlights from the discussion.

‘Creating the Future: The Crick and Coronavirus’ saw our expert panel deep dive into the institute’s unique response to the pandemic and share some of the science behind the headlines. Crick director and Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse posed questions to our panel of Crick group leaders, among them clinician scientist and immunologist Dr Rupert Beale, immunologist Dr George Kassiotis and clinician scientist and neurologist Dr Sonia Gandhi. The panel were also joined by Sir Andrew Witty, president of UnitedHealth Group – the world’s largest healthcare company – who is currently working with the World Health Organization on a global collaboration to accelerate the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Crick Chairman Lord John Browne opened the event with a brief introduction to the Crick’s incredible research efforts during the pandemic, particularly praising its impressive contribution to the national testing programme. Citing the institute’s strengths in collaboration and creativity, he highlighted the speed at which researchers were able to pivot their expertise and resources towards tackling the pandemic. “Within a fortnight, the Crick had transformed a section of the institute into testing facilities and launched a research programme to begin the search for answers,” he said.

Moderating the panel, Nurse revealed that the Crick is now processing around 10,000 tests a week, taking samples through the testing pipeline and returning results within 24 hours to “provide support for 10 NHS hospitals and 150 care homes in London”. Working with Cancer Research UK, NHS England and the Department for Health and Social Care, the Crick has also formed the Crick COVID-19 Consortium to share testing protocols and learnings with labs around the UK and worldwide. Perhaps most crucially, they’ve used their testing capability to keep the Crick fully operational throughout successive lockdowns, with weekly testing for staff allowing them to refocus their research efforts to inform the development of new tests, vaccines and clinical strategies to fight the virus.

The virus

Kicking off the panel discussion, Beale defined the nature of coronaviruses and revealed what sets this one apart. Coronaviruses are so named because they have a crown shape with an all-important spike that allows the virus to gain entry to cells. Beale suggested that neutralising this spike protein is the main aim of some of the promising vaccines in development, praising work done at the Crick to discover more about the protein’s structure and gain insight into how it works. With seven coronaviruses known to infect and transmit between humans – and four of these viruses causing the common cold – Beale posited that what makes this particular virus difficult to control is that “it transmits quite well between humans before they develop symptoms – sometimes without people even developing symptoms at all”.

Gandhi recalled the moment when, during the early stages of testing at the Crick, she realised people could be completely asymptomatic but still be carrying the virus. She suggested this could be down to a range of factors including a person’s immune response and multiple versions of the virus being in circulation at any time. Kassiotis went on to explain that “the immune response to one of the coronaviruses already circulating can be protective against this one”.

Healthcare and vaccines

Witty then asked listeners to reflect on the dramatic impact the pandemic is having on healthcare systems, with advanced economies like the US seeing a 50-60% reduction in “utilisation rates of classic healthcare” during the first 2-3 months of the pandemic. He mused that “by converting the fundamental impact on health services, the changes to global lifestyles and the economic disruption into a monetary figure, we’re probably looking at £25tn dollars of lost economic activity for the world between 2020 and 2025”.

Looking to the future, Nurse asked the question at the forefront of everyone’s mind: “What do you think of the vaccines we’re hearing about?” Witty replied that the past two weeks have left him feeling optimistic. “Most vaccines fail in development, so to see the results that we’ve now seen is encouraging,” he said. Admitting that uncertainties remain around the short- and long-term safety profiles for the vaccines, he advocated for humility “around just how quickly these companies can scale their production capacities”. He suggested that the work we’ve seen so far is promising but that “if we’re going to stand a chance of vaccinating significant cohorts globally, we’re going to need more than the options we have”.

The Crick’s response 

With a gleeful tone, Nurse moved the conversation on to the agility and dexterity shown by the Crick in the immediate aftermath of the virus’ emergence in the UK. He asked the panel to consider how the Crick were able to facilitate so many tests and deliver the results quickly and accurately. Gandhi identified that a major obstacle in the broader national testing process lay with the logistics around the disparate pipeline of required actions – from collection, to recording data, analysing samples and delivering results. So, what’s different at the Crick? “We’re in control of the whole pipeline,” explained Gandhi, “which means we can find solutions that work for us.” She went on to reflect on how the institute were able to create a system that works based on the available expertise of staff – before partnering with local hospitals to implement solutions in a local and agile way.

Fielding a question from Charles Manby, a long-time supporter of the Crick who helped fund its initial build, about how collaboration has become even more important since the pandemic hit, the panel unanimously praised “the huge transformation in the ways scientists are working”. Gandhi suggested that: “So far in the pandemic, success has been achieved not by people working in silos but by people working together.” The panel agreed that continued collaboration between academia, healthcare and scientists from across different fields is critical.  

Nurse closed the event by expressing his admiration for the agility of Crick staff, their capacity to think outside the box and the sheer breadth of their multidisciplinary research. He lauded the incredible quality of the work on the testing pipeline, which he said, “allowed us to respond very rapidly to a clinical crisis and make a contribution above our size in crafting a response to this pandemic”. Stating “the criticality of having great science behind decisions”, Nurse spoke of the robust collaboration between researchers and healthcare staff and the importance of continuing such collaboration: “We need each other if we’re going to tackle major clinical problems like this pandemic.”


– Edward Bowers, Philanthropy Communications Executive