By Professor Tom Wilkinson
The winter is always a difficult time for the NHS with the seasonal impact of respiratory viral infections affecting the most vulnerable members of society, driving hospital admissions, ITU stays and sadly excess mortality. This year is already worse than most. The perfect storm appears to have hit – the population is emerging from a pandemic where many of the most susceptible people have not been exposed to the usual colds and flu for some time allowing immunity to wane, compounded by the re-circulation of influenza as society starts to travel and mingle and an ongoing tail of COVID-19, which all lands just when the NHS seems least able to cope. Clinical services are now over stretched and hospitals across our region have had to declare critical incidents as they risk being overwhelmed.
This challenge brings back sharp and painful memories of early 2020 when the pandemic rocked the UK and our research community pivoted effectively and rapidly to find solutions to reduce the impact of COVID-19. Southampton, with our uniquely energetic synergy between University and Hospital Trust, delivered a really significant contribution to the nation’s response – driven by a real understanding of clinical need, an agile approach to getting new projects started and a deeply collaborative and problem-solving culture.
In 2023, as a new year begins, it’s vital that we build on this recent experience. With the award of the NIHR BRC we are ideally placed to do this. Late in 2022, we launched the UNIVERSAL study (Understanding Infection, Viral Exacerbation and Respiratory Symptoms Longitudinal). This Southampton-led project is recruiting patients as they are admitted to hospital with severe viral infections and will collect detailed data and biological profiling from 1000 patients across 10 centres in 2023. Due to the winter pressures, Southampton has had a flying start and we are already planning our first read out, which will inform the design of interventional studies, which could launch later this year. Our team of research nurses and doctors, with support from UHS clinical teams, is organised by the Southampton Clinical Trials Unit which is developing a global reputation for expertise in respiratory studies. Although there is no drug involved as yet, the project is funded by close collaboration with industry partners, and we are bringing together a unique consortium of companies willing to work pre-competitively to understand more about this challenge to health.
The ability to deliver clinically meaningful, timely and relevant research is what we do so well here and something for which we should be proud. Because of this, I’m hopeful that in winters to come, in the not-too-distant future, our research will have played a major role in reducing this recurrent and problematic threat to health and allow our patients and clinical teams to breathe a little easier.