With the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic having a serious impact on global health and the global economy, researchers in Norwich are playing a significant role in the nation’s efforts to deal with it. Whether it’s helping to manufacture ventilators, producing hand sanitiser, creating testing kits or mapping the virus, researchers at Norwich Research Park have been working hard to come up with innovative solutions.

3D printing of ventilator parts

The Government’s call for help in the manufacture of ventilators and parts is being answered by a team of researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA). Led by Dr Aram Saeed, in the School of Pharmacy, and Prof Ben Garrod, in the School of Biological Sciences, the team is using 3D printing technology to produce ventilator parts, masks and other critical items.

Dr Saeed said: “There is a nationwide effort to forge a real-time partnership between the healthcare services, academic institutions and businesses of all sizes to fight back against COVID-19. We hope to be able to find creative solutions faster to help combat this virus.”

Hand sanitiser for hospitals and key workers in the region

It has been well documented that there is a shortage of hand sanitiser available for healthcare professionals and key workers. The UEA Health & Social Care Partners is leading on an initiative to manufacture more hand sanitiser for the region’s health sector, with help from across the Park.

This initiative is aiming to produce hand sanitiser in the interim period until manufacturers and supply chains catch up.

UEA Health & Social Care Partners is appealing for donations of 96pc grade ethanol, or higher, in batches of 10 litres or more.

Southwold-based brewery Adnams and The English Whisky Co, based at Roudham, are already donating.

Any businesses in the region that are able to help should contact ueahscp@uea.ac.uk

Creating a testing kit

A spin-out company of the John Innes Centre is working on a home test kit for diagnosing the COVID-19 virus.

Iceni Diagnostics has previously created kits which can identify influenza, equine flu and norovirus. Now, it is focusing on creating a kit which can give users a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer on whether or not they have the flu or the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The company uses sugar recognition in its tests instead of viral genetic codes, which are used in most laboratory tests. This means the tests will be able to accurately identify the coronavirus – even if it mutates.

Dr Berwyn Clarke, chairman of Iceni Diagnostics, said: “We have a number of prototypes which successfully identify other types of flu. We’ve got the technology so we’re focusing all our efforts on the COVID-19 coronavirus.”

The test itself would look like a pregnancy test, with users putting their saliva on the end of the stick. Within 20 minutes, the test would tell you whether or not you have the coronavirus or influenza.

Dr Clarke said: “This could change it all. At the moment what people – and particularly NHS staff – are struggling with is whether or not they are carrying the virus, or if they do have symptoms, whether it’s for the coronavirus or something else. This kit would allow people to potentially test themselves at home.

“We usually say it takes about six months to get this sort of prototype launched. We’re a team of eight at the moment, so we’re trying to raise funds of between £1m-£2m to help us develop this quickly. It would allow us to get more hands-on deck and by having more people working on it, it should speed things up.”

Mapping the virus

It was announced earlier this week that the Government was investing £20m in an initiative designed to map the spread and the behaviours of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the UK through genome sequencing.

The COVID-19 Genomic UK Consortium is made up of a number of health agencies and research institutes across the UK, including the Quadram Institute at Norwich Research Park.

The consortium will look for breakthroughs that could help the UK respond to this and future pandemics and save lives. It will deliver large scale, rapid sequencing of the cause of the disease and share intelligence with hospitals, regional NHS centres and the Government. The genetic code could arm public health agencies and clinicians with a unique, cutting-edge tool to combat COVID-19.

Samples from patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 will be sent to a network of sequencing centres in the UK. Dr Justin O’Grady, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, will lead a project at the Quadram Institute to analyse COVID-19 samples and take a targeted sequencing-based approach to the genetic material to help identify any changes in the virus.

By looking at the whole virus genome in people who have had confirmed cases of COVID-19, scientists can monitor changes in the virus at a national scale to understand how the virus is spreading and whether different strains are emerging. This will help clinical care of patients and ultimately save lives.

Professor Ian Charles, director of the Quadram Institute, said: “We welcome this vital work to understand how COVID-19 spreads and behaves by using whole genome sequencing. It’s a testimony to the excellence of the scientific expertise we have here in Norwich that we will be contributing to this national, collaborative effort.”

International reputation for world-leading science

Norwich Research Park has an international reputation for being the home to world-leading research and science. The current COVID-19 virus outbreak has highlighted the role it can play in helping the world deal with very serious issues related to health.

David Parfrey, executive chair at Norwich Research Park, is very clear on how important the work on the Park is. He said: “It is truly humbling to witness first-hand the commitment of our colleagues at Norwich Research Park in putting all their energies into helping the UK deal with this unprecedented virus outbreak.

“Few people outside of the Park will have been privy to the scale of this situation before, but it’s something that many of the people here are dealing with every day as they devise new ways of addressing the world’s most critical health and food issues.”

He continued: “We are fortunate to count the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital as one of the partners of Norwich Research Park and I would like to say a huge thanks on behalf of our community for the hard work our wonderful colleagues there are doing right now.

“This is indeed a challenging time, but it also a time when we can show off our very best, whether that is simple kindnesses in the community, following Government advice to limit the pressure on the NHS, or our scientists combating the disease; we all have something to give.

“The current situation we find ourselves in highlights just some of the important work being conducted for the good of humankind at Norwich Research Park and just how well everyone here collaborates to find solutions for the common good.

“It’s enabled us to show our wider community what they do best and that’s changing lives and rethinking society. We are committed to doing the most we can to help and to rid our world of this horrible virus.”

Appeal for producers or suppliers of personal protective equipment

UEA Health & Social Care Partners are looking for producers or suppliers of long-sleeved surgical gowns. Anyone that can help should contact ueahscp@uea.ac.uk