Future Thinkers

More than 7 in 10 people believe that universities have an important role to play in helping the UK recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people will naturally think of scientists when they think about how universities have helped us deal with the virus, with vaccine breakthroughs coming from the intense work of virology researchers.

But the impact of Covid-19 has not just been on people’s physical health. Across a multitude of areas, it has impacted in unforeseen ways on society and exacerbated many existing problems. With over 500 researchers at Oxford Brookes, we’ve been working on a vast range of projects, not just to defeat the virus, but to look for solutions, help recovery and build towards the future.

Vaccines, the virus and mental health

Scientists at Oxford Brookes found that a protein enzyme modifies the virus’ genetic material, effectively hiding it from the body’s immune system.  This discovery could lead to the development of new drugs to treat Covid-19. 

And spinout company, Oxford Expression Technologies is helping to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, which can be used as a regular top-up in much the same way as the annual flu vaccine. This should diminish the threat of the virus to the point where society can safely open up and stay open. 

Covid-19 has also affected people’s psychological wellbeing – a recent research paper found a large proportion of virus survivors will be affected by cognitive issues ranging from PTSD and depression to impaired memory. This vital research will help understand the unseen consequences of the virus.

Examining inequality

The impact of the multiple lockdowns, introduced in order to save lives, has been felt particularly severely by the very young and the most disadvantaged. 

Experts from our Brookes Babylab are studying the impact of social distancing and lockdown on babies’ and young children’s development. Researcher Nayeli Gonzalez-Gomez says: “While we know disadvantaged families often do not have access to the same opportunities for child development as their more well-off peers, these disadvantages were exacerbated by the UK lockdown. In particular, the closure of playgrounds and libraries has disproportionately impacted children from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

The inequality in how the virus has affected different groups is being examined across Europe with Oxford Brookes academics joining a team investigating the situation in 31 countries. Funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, this project is looking at a range of inequalities experienced by different groups during Covid-19.  

Dr Anne Laure Humbert, Director of the Centre for Diversity Research Policy and Practice at Oxford Brookes University said: “The Covid-19 pandemic is a health crisis as well as a humanitarian, economic and social crisis. We know, for example, that women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic than men. Unemployment, rises in reports of domestic abuse, financial difficulties, physical and mental illness are all consequences of society being shut or partially shut down during the pandemic.”

Supporting the NHS

The exceptional work of NHS staff has been at the forefront of public consciousness since the pandemic hit the UK. Our research teams are looking into the experiences of different groups of NHS workers throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, to understand how it has affected them.

With student nurses stepping up into frontline NHS roles in the pandemic, new research – COV-Ed Nurse –  is studying the impact of their nurse education before and during the virus. The findings will help inform how nursing teaching is delivered in the future.

Another research project is investigating the team working experiences of frontline NHS staff, finding out more about the short and long-term impact of working in crisis mode.  The results from this could help shape our response to any future pandemics.

Business support and collaboration

The economic impact of the pandemic will be felt for years to come, with many small and medium sized businesses which are so vital to local communities, facing an uncertain future. In the South East region, it’s predicted that universities will provide nearly £2.4 billion of services and support to business over the next five years. This includes specialist advice, access to the latest facilities and equipment to develop innovative products, and conducting bespoke research projects.

Oxford Brookes has already started this process, helping businesses respond to the challenges that Covid-19 presented with its Business Resilience Initiative, offering support, partnership and training to help local companies recover, reassess and grow. 

Wildlife trade and tourism

It is widely believed within the scientific community that Covid-19 spread to humans as a result of close contact with animals. And our researchers have been investigating the wildlife trade – both legal and illegal. They found that illegal wildlife trade is thriving on social media, despite lockdowns, and say there’s an urgent need to monitor the legal wildlife trade also, to minimise disease transmission.  

Oxford Brookes experts also found that unsuspecting trekking tourists could be spreading the virus to wild mountain gorillas by taking selfies with them, without following Covid-19 precautions. Examining over 1,000 instagram posts as part of the research, the lead author and Brookes alumni Gaspard Van Hamme says: “The risk of disease transmission between visitors and gorillas is very concerning. It is vital that we strengthen and enforce tour regulations to ensure gorilla trekking practices do not further threaten these already imperiled great apes.”

Contributing to a better future

Covid-19 has taken a tragic toll. But it has been a challenge which we at Oxford Brookes, as at many other universities around the world, have been determined to rise to. And in doing so, our research is contributing to a better future – not a return to the old normal but forward to a healthier, fairer and more sustainable society.

Words by Kath Middleditch
Image by Ben Higgins