Institute response to COVID-19 pandemic

As a biomedical research institute, we recognise that research and a solid evidence base are critical to our efforts to combat the SARS-Cov2 virus. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have balanced the requirement to support critical research with individual social responsibility in the endeavour to deal with this crisis while following the guidance of the University, the Health Services Executive and the Irish Government.

The first patient in Ireland was diagnosed with COVID-19 on 29th February 2020. Shortly afterwards, Institute researchers and staff began working with the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) to sequence the genome of the SARS-Cov2 virus responsible for the disease in the initial cases. This work on revealed that one genome was 100% identical to the original genome from Wuhan city and others were related to a European derivative associated with travel history to northern Italy. We congratulate our colleagues in the NVRL (Dr Cillian de Gascun, Dr Michael Carr, Dr Gabriel Gonzalez) and members of the Conway community (Prof. Brendan Loftus, Alison Murphy, Catherine Moss, Prof. Ken Wolfe, Dr Kevin Byrne and Eoin O’Cinnéide) for the great work done.

Professor William Gallagher, Director, UCD Conway InstitutePictured: Professor William Gallagher, Director, UCD Conway Institute 

After the announcement by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadar T.D. on 13th March, it quickly became evident that equipment, reagents and expertise would be vital in the national response to this crisis. Institute technical and administrative staff collated inventories of relevant equipment and reagents to facilitate COVID-19 testing, if requested by clinical colleagues.
An email request for volunteers from within the Conway research community with relevant expertise in DNA and RNA extraction and PCR saw more than 180 people making themselves immediately available, if needed. A number of these PhD students and postdoctoral staff were deployed to St Vincent's University Hospital Covid-19 testing laboratory under the guidance of teams led by Prof. Patrick Mallon (UCD School of Medicine), Dr Sinead McDermott and Prof. Kirsten Schaeffer (Consultant Microbiologists, St Vincent’s University Hospital).

Conway Fellow, Prof. Helen Roche was one of the first volunteers trained by the Army Cadets to carry out COVID-19 contact tracing in the UCD call centre established by the Prof. Patrick Wall and Assoc. Prof. Mary Codd from the UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science. Helen herself has now trained more than 120 volunteers to carry out this work.

Conway Fellow, Dr Nicola Fletcher who recently joined UCD as an Ad Astra Fellow in UCD School of Veterinary Medicine has been involved in training technicians for the new testing facility at Enfer Group in Naas, Co. Kildare. Nicola trains the undergraduate student technicians in how to work safely with the potentially live virus, which must be inactivated in the first step of the diagnostic test. Nicola has been working with Dr John Browne from Prof. Stephen Gordon’s group in the Veterinary Science Centre on this initiative.

Conway Fellow, Prof. Catherine Godson has worked extensively on enabling the setup of additional COVID-19 testing capacity in St Vincent’s University Hospital. Catherine is also working with clinical and academic colleagues to explore possible routes to establishing alternative de novo testing platforms for COVID-19 that might circumvent the reliance on reagents that are in short supply globally. I would particularly like to thank Dr John Browne and Marc Farrelly (also in School of Veterinary Medicine) for making critical reagents for the testing process available for various hospitals in Dublin and further afield.

While maintaining essential equipment and providing support to researchers involved in critical research, Institute technical and laboratory staff have also made stocks of essential reagents and disinfectant hand wash and collected items of personal protective equipment (PPE) for local clinical sites and volunteers in the UCD Contact Tracing call centre. In particular, I want to thank Michael O’Sullivan, Emer Bonham and Eimear Ryan for coordinating these efforts.
There are also examples of Institute researchers who have lent their expertise to efforts to explain the unfolding scientific research behind this crisis and debunk ‘fake news’ in their international communities. Dr Arman Rahman and PhD student, Flavia Messina are to be congratulated for their initiative to engage with the public in their home countries of Bangladesh and Italy, respectively.
These are unprecedented times and it is heartening to see how willing Institute researchers and staff are to contribute to the national effort to combat COVID-19.
Professor William Gallagher
Director, UCD Conway Institute