Sample testing, developing biotechnology, mapping virus clusters and performing clinical trials; University College Dublin (UCD) is home to a wide range of people who have worked extensively over the past number of months to develop lifesaving equipment, techniques and solutions to the most pressing issues COVID-19 has presented to us.
On Wednesday, the Irish Universities Association (IUA), of which UCD is a member of, launched its publication ‘Irish Universities Help Fight The COVID-19 Pandemic’. The document outlines how third-level institutions have done their part in finding solutions for the pandemic’s most pressing issues. Irish universities have led the fight against the virus in a number of areas, including expert advice for staff and students on the frontline, testing and contact tracing, volunteering and fundraising, and developing specialty equipment for hospitals.
Leading the Effort
Dr Cillian de Gascun, the Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL), which is based in UCD, is leading Ireland’s effort to tackle the spread of COVID-19. As a Consultant Virologist, he is Chair of the Expert Advisory Group providing advice on COVID-19 to the Health Service Executive (HSE) and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET). Maynooth University’s President Philip Nolan has also headed up key groups in NPHET. The NVRL is the primary centre for testing of virus samples in Ireland, with thousands of samples being tested in Belfield since the first known case in Ireland.
UCD has also provided volunteers with science qualifications to support the national virus testing effort.
Over 800 students have volunteered in a COVID-19 Medicine Deliveries Group which was set up by medical students in UCD. The group links 355 pharmacies across the country and delivers medicines to self-isolating and vulnerable people.
The university has also made gains in the latest biotechnology. As mentioned in the IUA’s publication, “researchers have developed a method and standard operating procedure for the lysis buffer used in RNA extraction which has been shared across institutions nationally.”
Dr Patrick Wall and Professor Mary Codd of the UCD School of Public Health have established the country’s first Contact Tracing Centre outside of government-run HSE sites. Manned by 200 operators, the centre calls people to inform them of their test results and provide vital information to concerned newly diagnosed people. Key to this operation is gathering information on close contacts for tracing purposes. Located in the O’Brien Centre for Science, UCD doctors and a HSE public health lead provide onsite support for the contact tracing process. Researchers from UCD’s School of Computer Science are also in the process of developing new ways of contact tracing.
Prof. Walter Cullen is creating a map of the pandemic, identifying clusters in each county.
Prof. Fionnuala McAuliffe from UCD and the National Maternity Hospital is performing clinical trials with pregnant women who have contracted the virus.
Prof. Mark Coyne is working on a “convalescent serum study” which involves the use of the anti-SARS-CoV-2 serum.
Colin Keogh, a research engineer at UCD, has developed a ventilator which can be 3D-printed. Keogh is the co-founder of Open Source Ventilator (OSV) Ireland, which allows the ventilator to be preproduced by anybody with the correct printer and materials.
Prof. Alistair Nichol, who specialises in Intensive Care Medicine at UCD and St Vincent’s University Hospital, is leading the ‘REMAP CAP’ clinical trial. This trial analyses interventions with critically ill COVID-19 patients and compares with data across a global network. The aim is to reduce the impact of the virus within intensive care units.
Belfield’s own Prof. Cormac McCarthy and Prof. Paddy Mallon have joined the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Trial Solidarity. This trial analyses the effectiveness of a number of potential treatments for the virus, including: remdisivir, chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine, lopinavir / ritonavir and b interferon.
Prof. Rachel Crowley is developing an ethical decision-making framework which aims to guide decision-makers during the pandemic.
Prof. Aidan Regan of UCD’s School of Politics and International Relations has led the submission of an open letter to the European Council of Ministers. Backed by over 400 academics, the letter calls for an increase in finances for the eurozone through the introduction of a ‘eurobond’.
The university has donated over 55,000 pairs of nitrile gloves to the Mater Hospital, as well as providing a range of equipment and consumables to support virus testing.
Together with University College Cork (UCC), UCD has founded a National Foundation module in Critical Care Nursing. The course is an online programme aimed at increasing the number of nurses skilled enough to provide critical care. Academics from these universities are also working with RTÉ to provide educational programmes for primary school students through its Home School Hub broadcasts each day.
Keeping Us Informed
Prof. Liam Delaney, from UCD’s School of Economics has contributed his expertise on behavioural economics to The Irish Times, analysing behavioural fatigue during lockdown. He is also working with the HSE to help understand how to incentivise certain behaviours in response to the current health crisis.
Prof. Paddy Mallon, who specialises in microbial diseases at UCD, is consulting with St Vincent’s University Hospital and contributes to podcasts, radio and TV shows, providing his expertise. UCD’s Dr Virginie Gautier has also helped educate the public by explaining the science behind social distancing on RTÉ’s Prime Time.
Speaking about the universities’ contribution, Jim Miley, Director General of the IUA said: “As with many other sectors, Ireland’s universities are playing an influential role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. This is in parallel with their teaching and exams management of thousands of students around the country. Across a wide range of disciplines, our universities and their staff and students have, and are, making a hugely valuable contribution to the national efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Conor Capplis – Editor