In the UK, Dr Christopher Cooper (1994), Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences, University of Huddersfield, is working on computational analysis of the structure of some of the proteins in SARS-CoV-2.
Knowing the shape of the protein can help with drug design, and Chris’s group is using computational structural methods to find new targets to help develop the chemistry, so that novel drugs can be developed. Some of the proteins in the Covid-19 virus have already had their structure determined from similar coronaviruses: SARS and MERS and also coronaviruses that cause some common colds.
Chris’s group is trying to predict the structure of the other proteins, and model compounds that bind to them to find out if they can act as potential targets for drug inhibition. The viral helicase and RNA polymerase are some of the important proteins, as they unwind and copy the viral genome during its replication cycle.
Chris says modestly:
“Mine is very small-scale research, but it is all part of trying to understand the disease – to find out how the virus works. Every bit of knowledge helps. You try and do your bit. If future related pandemic viruses develop, then we hope to have additional lines of attack.”
At the community level, Sara Fernandez (2006) worked with Oxford City Council to set up Oxford Together in partnership with Oxford Hub, the volunteering charity of which she is CEO. “I’m Spanish and my mum is a nurse in Madrid, so I was fearful about what was going to happen here.”
Sara’s team went into action on 12 March, devising a response plan. The first step was to divide the city into 600 segments. About 5,600 people signed up as volunteers, of whom more than 2,000 were matched with tasks. Street Champions were allocated as the first point of contact for help with local shopping and collecting prescriptions; other volunteers manned the phone lines, either receiving calls for assistance or making regular calls to lonely people. In partnership with a charity in Didcot, Oxford Together arranged the delivery of 1,600 food parcels a week. Volunteer mechanics repaired abandoned student bikes to give them to key workers so that they could avoid public transport. And many students gave online tutoring classes for secondary school pupils.
“Oxford City Council couldn’t have matched the level of need if our volunteers hadn’t stepped in. We’ve been around as a charity since 2008, but our work has been more appreciated and more visible because of the Covid crisis.”
And if we didn’t know anyone personally who had had coronavirus severely enough to be admitted to hospital, Dominic Minghella (1986) put us in the picture through his articles in the Telegraph and Observer. Fortunately, he has recovered completely, with no lasting ill-effects. However, his was a harrowing experience at the time; he even penned farewells to his family. He wrote about not only his symptoms but also the frightening ordeal of being in hospital, surrounded by people whose faces he could not see.
Dominic says he wrote the piece “because I felt traumatised by the experience, and it felt like a way to exorcise it. I also felt that, in the early phase, a lot of people wanted to know what having the virus was really like.”
Even though Dominic was fit enough to travel to Italy as usual this summer, his body appears to have flashbacks. “Packing for Italy, I opened the same travel bag that I had taken with me to hospital, and my hand and my whole arm started shaking. My body hasn’t forgotten about it.”
Dominic also wanted to join the debate about what was being done and not done, and the divisions caused. “I’m sad about that because we are all vulnerable together and we all need to get out of this situation together.” He wrote another article, in the New Statesman, about the 11 days of March, from 12 March, when contact tracing stopped, until lockdown was imposed on 23 March, “because so many people were hungry to know about that. I’ll leave it to others now.”