28 April 2020 

Five NIHR Health Protection Research Unit (HPRU) in Behavioural Science and Evaluation-led research projects to help tackle COVID-19 have been funded by the University of Bristol’s Elizabeth Blackwell Institute.

The research projects are the first to be announced from the recent Elizabeth Blackwell Institute Rapid Response Funding Call (COVID-19). They include projects to: increase the UK’s testing capacity; assess the impact of social distancing and isolation; understand the experiences of young people; explore the use of digital technologies by older people to combat isolation; and mathematical modelling to evaluate control and mitigation strategies, such as travel restrictions, border screening and quarantine policies. 

The projects

Advancing PCR testing for SARS-CoV-2

A project to help increase the UK’s testing capacity is being led by Adam Finn, Professor of Paediatrics at Bristol, Director of the Bristol Children’s Vaccine Centre at Bristol Medical School and lead of Bristol UNCOVER (Bristol COVID Emergency Research), a group of Bristol researchers united to collaborate on finding ways to overcome the disease.

Professor Finn’s lab is establishing quantitative real time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests which enable scientists to look for the genetic sequences specific to the virus and show if someone is infected at the time of testing. Currently used by Public Health England (PHE) to test patients and NHS staff, the team will use PCRs to validate other tests and kits to check they are reliable enough so that capacity could be scaled-up. The team also plan to analyse swab samples taken as part of other research studies during recent weeks to chart the early stages of the epidemic.

Professor Finn said: “This project will undertake some of the testing research and development activities needed by PHE but which they do not currently have the capacity to take forward. Our aim in the coming weeks is to set up studies in patients and healthcare workers in Bristol to understand the natural history of the infection. This will provide us with accurate information on the relationships between symptoms, the presence of the virus and the development of antibodies in the blood.”

Social contacts and mixing patterns under COVID-19 social distancing measures

This project, led by Dr Hannah Christensen, Senior Lecturer in Infectious Disease Modelling at the HPRU, will survey 1,000 older adults living in the community and ask them about their social contacts, including how many contacts people have, where they happen and what type of interaction individuals are having with others. This will help us to understand how effective the social distancing and isolation recommendations are, and what contacts may still be contributing to coronavirus transmission in this particularly vulnerable group. 

Infectious diseases are transmitted from person to person, so understanding who contacts whom is key to understanding how diseases spread in the population and how we can best design interventions to control them. In the COVID-19 response, mathematical models are being used to inform policy decisions including social distancing measures and ‘shielding’ of vulnerable groups, including older adults. These models urgently need up-to-date social mixing data, particularly for older people. 

Dr Christensen said: “This study will provide evidence that can immediately be used by mathematical modellers to inform policy making about social distancing and how best to respond to COVID-19 over the coming weeks and months.”

Understanding the impact on, and experiences of, young people during the COVID-19 pandemic

People with underlying health conditions and aged over 70 years are more likely to develop serious health problems from the coronavirus. However, other population groups, such as young people, are also affected during the pandemic. Dr Harriet Fisher, Senior Research Associate at the HPRU is leading this study to find out the effects of the coronavirus pandemic from the perspectives of young people.

Interviews will be conducted with 20 young people from Bristol aged 12 to 17 years old. During the interviews,  young people will be asked how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted their physical, social and mental health. Young people will also be asked about their experiences of carrying out public health social distancing measures and whether they would support being vaccinated against the coronavirus. 

Dr Fisher said: “We hope the findings from this study can help make recommendations to improve support for young people during infectious disease pandemics.”  

Use of digital technologies and self-reported loneliness by older individuals self-isolating during COVID-19

UK Government has recommended that anyone with underlying health conditions or aged 70 years or older should self-isolate for 12 weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet evidence shows that social isolation among older adults is a serious public health problem, as lonely individuals are at a higher risk of depression, lower quality of life and increased vulnerability to coronary heart disease.

This project, led by Dr Gemma Lasseter, Research Fellow and Programme Manager of the HPRU, will survey 600 adults aged 70 years or older in the UK to explore the use of digital technologies by older individuals self-isolating during COVID19, the impact on self-reported loneliness and ascertain ‘what digitally works’ to alleviate feelings of loneliness.

Dr Lasseter said: “This research will help us understand the experience of loneliness and the role of various digital health technologies to help ease these feelings. These findings could help support the development of future technologies, the development of education and training materials, and inform policy to support older members of our community during the COVID-19 pandemic response.”

Healthcare seeking behaviour and contact patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic: informing predictive modelling

Dr Ellen Brooks-Pollock, Lecturer in Infectious Disease Mathematical Modelling at the HPRU, is leading a project to adapt and develop mathematical models of COVID-19 disease spread and movement within the UK to evaluate the impact of control and mitigation strategies, including travel restrictions, border screening and quarantine policies, and to predict where and when the disease will spread.  

Professor Matthew Hickman, Co-Director of the NIHR HPRU in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at the University of Bristol, said: “One of the key aims of the HPRU is to be responsive to Public Health England priorities and these examples illustrate the important repurposing of existing research to generate new insights into how we can manage and prevent COVID19.”

Rachael Gooberman Hill, Director of the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic marks an unprecedented time in our history, it’s affecting all of us and we need research to help to find the way forward. Many of Bristol’s staff and students are already committing their time and energy by supporting the NHS and government. Colleagues across the University are contributing their expertise, laboratories and equipment and are responding to needs in our communities and volunteering their time.

“These projects, many of which are brand new areas of research, are part of Bristol’s collective effort to mobilise our scientific expertise to deliver rapid and wide-reaching impact to help protect and care for people. The projects come from diverse research areas, including laboratory sciences, epidemiology and social sciences. All of these approaches can make important contributions to the COVID-19 problem.

“We had an overwhelming response to our rapid funding call from our researchers. Because of this we will continue with the funding call, which remains open to University staff. We plan to announce additional research projects in the coming weeks.”

A full list of funded projects is available on the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute website.

Further information 

Support University of Bristol COVID-19 research

University of Bristol researchers are part of a global network of scientists responding urgently to the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic. Find out how you can support their critical work.

About the NIHR

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation’s largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

  • funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
  • engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
  • attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
  • invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
  • partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy.

The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR supports applied health research for the direct and primary benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries, using UK aid from the UK government.

See: NIHR’s response to COVID-19