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The St Catharine’s community responds to the outbreak of COVID-19

Tuesday 28 April 2020

The widespread disruption caused by Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) is not unprecedented, as reflected in a recent online article by Professor Sir John Baker (1970): “Cambridge, alas, has not been unacquainted with epidemics over the centuries.” Since it was founded in 1473, the College’s response to local, national and international events not only sustained our community through the centuries, but also benefited wider society through our unflinching commitment to advancing education, religion, learning and research.

Our continued sense of community and wider purpose has been obvious from the immediate response of our students, alumni, staff and Fellows to COVID-19. These early contributions are too numerous to pay tribute to in full and no doubt new activities will emerge to keep up with the spread of the virus. However, we can all take pride and comfort in the different ways everyone played a part during the first months of the pandemic.

The response in College

Prioritising the safety and wellbeing of our community at all times, the College’s response was spearheaded by a dedicated team of staff and Fellows, led by the Bursar and reporting to the Governing Body. As part of these efforts, our new and outgoing Senior Tutors worked together to ensure continuity: Dr Miranda Griffin (2007) as Senior Tutor until 31 March and Dr Holly Canuto (2020) was closely involved long before she started as Senior Tutor on 1 April.

At the outset, our students were supported if they needed to self-isolate in College during March and April. Medical, pastoral and academic support was provided by the College Nurse, the Senior Tutor and the tutorial team, our Porters and others. Many students also kindly volunteered to help their friends as designated Self-Isolation Supporters.

In anticipation of sudden disruption across the UK, all students who were able to left Cambridge at the end of Lent term and, with much regret, were advised that they would not be returning for the remainder of the academic year. Faculties and departments soon made plans for teaching remotely and alternative methods of assessment in the Easter term.

Financial assistance and welfare support were made available by the College, and dedicated website pages were set-up with links to official sources of advice and up-to-date information. In addition, the JCR and MCR Committees adapted their activities to support students, wherever they were in the world.

Importantly, the College committed to support the small group of students who were unable to leave Cambridge. The Operations Director and her teams worked tirelessly to reduce operations whilst still providing a safe and secure environment and daily nourishing meals. We are hugely grateful to our own ‘key workers’ and all staff who each played a vital role in helping these students.

The College strictly followed government guidance about gatherings, and staff were in regular contact with organisers and guests in response to the changing situation. There have been postponements and cancellations, regrettably sometimes with little notice when social distancing and lockdown were first introduced.

While significantly reduced income is expected from student accommodation and conferences, the College is paying as normal all staff with a permanent or fixed-term contract of employment, and maintaining financial resilience so that future generations of students do not suffer as a result of COVID-19. Furloughing staff as part of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and other measures will help the College manage these commitments.

The response of our medics and scientists

The immediate impact of COVID-19 was felt acutely by frontline health services, including Addenbrooke’s Hospital. In response, eleven of our final year medical students graduated in April, allowing them to seek early registration with the General Medical Council and start working as doctors alongside Fellows and alumni in the NHS.

Fellows have been caring for patients with COVID-19 and identifying treatments that could help save lives. Professor Stefan Marciniak (2011) explained, “Professor Nick Morrell (2013) and I are both respiratory consultants and medical professors. We temporarily closed our research labs and returned to the wards at Addenbrooke’s to lead the treatment of patients alongside colleagues from infectious diseases and the intensive care unit. I am also working on clinical trials to find treatments for COVID-19.”

Pictured: Professor Marciniak’s beard had to go so he could wear personal protective equipment (PPE).

Professor James Moon (1989) has been among our alumni involved in the NHS response to COVID-19. As part of the Barts/QMUL and UCLH/UCL COVID research strategy group and Head of Research at London’s Nightingale Hospital, his work focused on healthcare workers: “We are creating a biorepository of data and blood samples from our staff before, during and after exposure to the disease. This will generate over 50,000 samples that will be shared with the UK's leading research groups to try to deliver answers to some of the most pressing questions.”

Away from the frontline, Fellows working on COVID-19 research projects were granted special permission to progress this important work. Director of Studies in Biochemistry Dr Mairi Kilkenny (2016) commented, “I am using a combination of protein expression, interaction and structural techniques to investigate the molecular mechanisms by which the virus may modulate the body’s immune/inflammatory response. There is an enormous amount of research being conducted around the world, and it feels good to be contributing to that, even if only in very small part.”

Pictured: Dr Kilkenny working in her laboratory during lockdown.

Pharmacologist Professor Anthony Davenport (1995) has been part of a group of researchers investigating the biology of an enzyme called ACE-2 (Angiotensin Converting Enzyme-2). The virus responsible for COVID-19 exploits ACE-2 to enter cells, so the group aims to screen existing medicines and investigational agents that may inhibit entry by the virus. As an executive member of the International Union of Pharmacology, he is also supporting international action to identify drug targets through the Guide to Pharmacology and co-authored “A rational roadmap for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 pharmacotherapeutic research and development.”

Led by Professor William Sutherland (2008) and funded by The David and Claudia Harding Foundation, the Biosecurity Research Initiative at St Catharine's (BioRISC) published research identifying 275 ways to reduce the spread of the virus, which attracted considerable media interest. The Master explained, "There is much in their research that will assist the UK Government in making decisions as to how we move out of lockdown at the appropriate moment."

Video became a powerful educational tool in the response to COVID-19. Director of Studies in Physiology Dr Matthew Mason (2001) disseminated educational videos for clinicians from other specialisms who might be co-opted to work on respiratory wards, while alumnus and GP Dr Jamie Parker (1999) appeared on radio and TV after producing musical videos about staying at home.

Ultimately, a broad range of scientific disciplines were involved in the response: for example, postgraduate engineers Lorena Gordillo Dagallier (2017) and Cihat Cengiz (2017) helped design an open-source ventilator for use in low- and middle-income countries.

Pictured: Lorena and Cihat working on the prototype ventilator.

The response from other Fellows

The wider Fellowship has predominantly focused on the education and welfare of our community. However, COVID-19 triggered and exacerbated a host of social, political and economic issues, which some of our Fellows stepped forward to help address. Professor Sir Chris Clark (1990) hosted a new podcast series that explored past and present experiences of epidemics, while Dr Simon Taylor (2009) discussed the impact of the public health emergency on the financial sector on his ongoing economics blog. Additionally, Dr Katharine Dell (1996) published a theological response in the Church Times and The Rev’d Ally Barrett (2019) wrote a moving hymn as the pandemic continued during Easter.

As Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Institutional and International Relations, Professor Eilís Ferran (1980) led the response across the University as teams adapted to different ways of working. In new guidance on remote working, she wrote, “The main thing I would ask you to do is to look after yourself, your loved ones and colleagues.” This is a sentiment that the College wishes to extend to all students, alumni, staff and Fellows in these uncertain and challenging times.