How to contribute to COVID-19 research

COVID-19 has been such a large part of our lives for so long that it's easy to forget it's a very new virus, and there is still a great deal to learn about it. To do that, the science community relies on members of the public - those who have had coronavirus and those who haven't - to sign up as research volunteers.

Nottingham GP Dr Simon Royal has been involved in organising and leading health trials and studies for many years. As well as leading clinical research at his own practice, he works for the NHS's research arm, the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR).

"With the events of this year, good-quality NHS research has become a lot more topical and relevant," Dr Royal says. "People can clearly see the importance of designing and performing strong research that gives you the answers you need. They are also realising that in order to get those answers, we need people to volunteer to take part."

There are many different ways to contribute to COVID-19 research, all of which could ultimately help to save lives.

COVID-19 vaccine trials

Since the very early days of the global pandemic, scientists around the world have been scrambling to come up with a coronavirus vaccine. This research has been well publicised, not only to reassure the public that rigorous work is underway to try to halt the spread of the virus, but also to encourage the swathes of people needed to register for vaccine trials, in order to find the best vaccine as quickly as possible.

Who do the researchers most need?

In short, the more people who sign up the better and the researchers welcome adults of pretty much all ages. But there are people from certain groups they're particularly keen to represent. These are:

  • Over-65s.
  • People of BAME origin.
  • Frontline health and social care workers.

If you fall into one of these groups, or know others who do, please spread the word.

Oxford Vaccine Trial

One of the most promising studies has been the COVID-19 Oxford Vaccine Trial. Taking place at a number of sites across the UK and in the USA, Brazil and South Africa, it aims to find a safe vaccine that can be used to create immune responses against the virus, and therefore prevent the disease. Scientists at the University of Oxford started working on this research back in January, and the first volunteers were immunised in April.

In any study of this type, all participants are closely monitored and followed up regularly. Trials can last for several months or even years, so it's entirely normal for volunteers to fall ill by chance in that time - just as they might if they weren’t involved in a research trial at all.

"It's really important that all illnesses are carefully assessed, and this takes time," explains Dr Royal. "It is usual for clinical trials to be paused while investigations are completed to the satisfaction of the independent safety authorities. When this happens, it should not be concluded that the trial or the medicinal product is unsafe. On the contrary, it demonstrates that all the safeguards are working, and that the safety of participants is paramount."

So, when one volunteer in the Oxford trial became ill and the study was paused, researchers described this as a "routine action", and one that shouldn't cause alarm. A thorough investigation was undertaken by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the UK authority that oversees all clinical trials of medicines and vaccines. The trial was deemed safe to continue just four days later.

More trials

Meanwhile, at the time of writing, one other vaccine trial is ongoing and recruiting volunteers. Dr Royal is quick to highlight that participants' safety remains a top priority, and urges people to continue to come forward. "All the NIHR vaccine and coronavirus research is meticulously organised, well planned and properly regulated," he says. "People who take part can be confident that these trials have been through stringent ethics and safety approval."

Dr Sarah Jarvis, Clinical Director of Patient.info, has already signed up for this trial. "I'm delighted to be helping with such important research," she says. "It's a completely different way of doing my bit compared to working as a GP or giving health advice in the media - but every bit as important."

You can express your interest in helping out with one of the ongoing approved vaccine trials through the NIHR website, where you can find more information and register your details.

Other studies and research

While the search for a vaccine against COVID-19 continues apace, scientists are also conducting trials that aim to find the most effective treatments for the virus.

For example, the COVID-19 convalescent plasma trial involves collecting blood from people who have recovered from coronavirus, and extracting parts of the blood (plasma) to donate to patients who are still unwell.

Anyone who has tested positive for coronavirus or its antibodies, or had symptoms, could be eligible to donate their blood. The plasma of people who have had the virus contains high levels of COVID-19 antibodies, which are produced by the immune system to fight the virus. This can be transfused into people who are struggling to develop their own immune response, helping them to recover.

There are 193 hospitals taking part and NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) is calling on people urgently to volunteer for this trial. You can find out more about what's involved and how you might be able to help on the NHSBT website.

Tracking your symptoms

Elsewhere, you can join millions of people who have downloaded the COVID Symptom Study app to track and report their health and any symptoms they experience every day, even if they are well. This information is collected and analysed by researchers at King's College London, so it can contribute to wider understanding of the virus and its range of symptoms.

Inclusive research

A further aim of this study is to give insight into the way COVID-19 risk factors vary between people with different characteristics, like those from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

"It's vitally important that we get every demographic represented in research, because a lot of illnesses affect different groups unequally," explains Dr Royal. "COVID-19 is one example of a condition that disproportionately affects BAME people, so we need to try to make sure those communities are properly represented and not neglected."

Doing that sometimes relies on adapting the ways researchers and doctors recruit volunteers. For example, they can provide information in different languages and formats to reach as many patient cohorts as possible. There is also a dedicated BAME section on the NIHR coronavirus research website - with videos in Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Urdu, as well as English - to guide people from BAME backgrounds through the importance of research and what they can do to help.

Symptom Surveillance Survey

If you are 16 or over and have or have had symptoms of coronavirus, you can also contribute to Patient's Symptom Surveillance Survey. The research is in collaboration with the University of Oxford and the Royal College of General Practitioners to find out more about the impact of COVID-19. The survey now asks more questions about how COVID-19 has impacted your life so even if you've completed it before, you can do so again and contribute even more detail.

An opportunity to help save lives

At the time of writing, the NIHR listed 136 NHS-approved COVID-19 research studies that were recruiting volunteers, so there are still lots of ways you can contribute.

"I would wholeheartedly encourage people who are interested in coronavirus research to visit the website to register their interest," says Dr Royal. "You're not committing yourself to doing anything, but simply agreeing to be notified of any studies that may be relevant to you."

Any information you share about yourself is treated in strictest confidence in accordance with data protection legislation, he adds.

Most importantly, the organisations and researchers leading and carrying out coronavirus research are completely independent and non-partisan. "There is, of course, political pressure to get answers as quickly as possible," Dr Royal comments. "But in the research community we must resist that and continue to do what's best for the population as a whole."

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