Episode 13: Vaccines milestones and combating conspiracy theories

Since our last episode, the first vaccine target has been hit in England and more than 15 million people in the UK have had their first dose. This is a fantastic achievement for all involved!

However, new questions have emerged over the efficacy of the Oxford vaccine in relation to the South African variant. And despite all the evidence, there remain some people that still dispute the very existence of the virus.

This week, Adam joins us again to give an updated assessment of the vaccine rollout effort. I was also delighted to be joined by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky – Chair in Cognitive Psychology at the Bristol School of Psychological Science, and an international authority on conspiracy theories.

Last year, Stephan and Adam contributed to a new COVID-19 Vaccine Communication Handbook that aimed to help people effectively debunk the potentially harmful conspiracy theories in circulation.

In this fascinating conversation, we discuss what is it about conspiracy theories that draw people into believing them, practical approaches we can take if we are worried someone may be vulnerable, and the roll of technology in spreading conspiracy theories around the world.

On this latter point, Stephan references a recent report for the European Commission he co-authored: ‘Technology and Democracy: Understanding the influence of online technologies on political behaviour and decision-making’. You can find that report here.

As ever, thanks to Adam and Stephan for taking the time our of their incredibly busy schedules to join us.

Episode 12: Vaccines and new strains

In our last episode, I spoke to Professor Adam Finn to discuss the phenomenal achievements of the research community in developing several safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines.

Since that conversation, two more vaccines – the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine and the Moderna vaccine – have received approval for use in the UK by the MHRA; the COVID vaccination programme is now in full swing; and the government aims to offer a first vaccine to everyone in the most vulnerable groups by mid-February. But alongside this fantastic progress in the battle against COVID-19, we are also seeing new, even more infectious strains of the virus emerging around the world; including here in the UK.

Given these pivotal developments, I was delighted Adam took some more time out of his busy schedule, which includes advising UK health departments on COVID-19 vaccine strategy, to give us an updated assessment of the situation as he sees it.

During the conversation, we discussed how confident we can be that existing vaccines provide protection against the new strains of COVID identified; our understanding of how long the vaccines provide protection; and if Adam foresees any reason why, if some vaccines turn out to be more effective than others, they can’t subsequently be given to people who’ve already had the less effective ones some months earlier.

Of course, one of the biggest challenges to the government’s vaccination programme is ‘vaccine hesitancy’ among some sections of the population. Much of this hesitancy is driven by an understandable concern that there must have been a compromise in standards to deliver the vaccines so quickly.

For anyone experiencing these concerns, I urge you to read Adam’s recent article in The Guardian, Ten reasons we got Covid-19 vaccines so quickly without ‘cutting corners’. In the article, Adam sets out, with characteristic clarity, why we can all have confidence in the processes that underpinned this remarkable achievement of the global research community.

Thanks, as ever, to Adam for his time, and I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Episode 11: Vaccine breakthroughs

We started this series back in April. The aim was to speak to some of those leading researchers here at Bristol who were helping the global community respond to the rapid emergence of COVID-19.

Today, less than ten months after the start of the pandemic, we now face the prospect of not one but three promising vaccines that could bring an end to this global public health crisis.

For this episode, I wanted to focus on the development of these vaccines over the past several months. To do so, I was delighted to be reunited with Professor Adam Finn – the very first guest we had on the series back in April.

Adam is director of the Bristol Children’s Vaccine Centre, chair of the World Health Organisation’s European Technical Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation and, most recently, leader of Bristol UNCOVER – a group researchers from the University of Bristol who have been united in their efforts to combat COVID-19.

We discussed the novel approach taken to synthesise these new vaccines, and the process behind their development, clinical trials and regulatory approval. Reassuringly, as Adam explains, although the process has been accelerated, no corners have been cut and the data on safety and efficacy is in line with what we would normally expect at this stage for any new vaccine.

I’m grateful to both Adam for sharing his expertise, and of course, to the hundreds of individuals across the UK (and particularly in Bristol) who’ve put themselves forward for these clinical trials. Thanks to their participation, we can all be hopeful of returning to some semblance of normality in the coming months.


Episode 10: Why are BAME people at higher risk from Covid-19?

From the early days of COVID-19, it became increasingly clear that there were inequalities at play in the risks posed by the virus.

It was very apparent that older people and those with pre-existing health conditions were at higher risk than the young and healthy, but patterns in the UK also started to suggest race and ethnicity were factors.

Public Health England recently published a review which formally confirmed the risk of dying among those diagnosed with COVID-19 is higher substantially higher – by as much as 10-50% – for those in BAME groups than white British people. The highest diagnosis rates of COVID-19 were also found to be in people from Black ethnic groups.

So how do we find out what is driving this inequality in risk?

To help answer this question, I was joined for this episode by medical sociologists Dr Catherine Dodds, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy in Bristol’s School for Policy Studies, and Dr Saffron Karlsen, Senior Lecturer in Social Research in our School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies.

During the conversation, we touch upon the unfortunate fact that these health inequalities are not unique to COVID. Indeed, we see them in chronic disease across the UK and elsewhere.

Catherine, Saffron and their colleagues are working with civic colleagues and charities to look at specific local health inequalities, the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown on different ethnic communities, and how these might be addressed. It’s this kind of partnership research that will be vital for eliminating such inequalities. I’m very grateful for their work in our communities, and for their contribution to this series.

Episode 9: What is the Role of the ‘Civic’ University in Covid-19 Recovery?

In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis has thrown into relief the deep and varied connections between universities and society – their civic role.

It’s widely agreed that higher education institutions have a responsibility to contribute to the public good and I, for one, am proud of the contribution our own Bristol community is making to the local, national and global effort to combat COVID-19.

I’ve been fortunate, through this series of conversations, to speak to some of those researchers leading the charge – in everything from bio-medical research into testing and vaccine development, to policy research around domestic violence and public health guidance.

As we emerge from the initial emergency response to the coronavirus, what is the role of the ‘Civic’ university in supporting local, regional and national Covid-19 recovery efforts?

To provide some insights on this question, and to explore aspects of Bristol’s own civic response, I was delighted for this episode to be joined by Dr Helen Manchester – Reader in Digital Inequalities and Urban Futures in our School of Education, and Morag McDermont – Professor of Socio-Legal Studies within the Bristol Law School.

Helen and Morag are members of ReCOVer – the University of Bristol’s new COVID-19 Civic Response and Civic Futures Research group.

ReCOVer is committed to supporting the community and voluntary sector during the Coronavirus pandemic and beyond. It’s activities are led by the University’s partners needs. The group’s ultimate aim is to create an evidence base that will be useful both for the civil society sector in Bristol and for the city as a whole as we move into the post-emergency recovery period.

My thanks to Helen, Morag and the wider ReCOVer group for all of their hard work.


Episode 8: How Does COVID-19 Spread?

Although it’s been several months since COVID-19 first emerged, scientists around the world still have a lot of questions about the virus.

For example, there’s a debate at present concerning the value of wearing facial coverings to reduce the spread of COVID. This debate depends on high quality science relating to how the virus spreads, how the virus survives outside of the body and, in particular, the behaviour of the virus and its survival within droplets and aerosols.

I was joined for this episode by Professor Jonathan Reid who’s work in recent weeks has been focused on understanding the virus from this perspective.

Jonathan is a physical chemist by background, based within the Bristol School of Chemistry.

In this Episode, he tells me about his team’s approach to understanding how COVID spreads outside the body and the unique experimental tools they are using to study how the virus is effective when it’s airborne.

Thank you to Jonathan for taking the time to share such fascinating insights with us.

Episode 7: How can big data help us to treat COVID-19?

Since COVID arrived in December, researchers around the world have been working at pace in an attempt to define and to deliver a therapy – either a novel therapy or an existing drug – that can effectively treat patients suffering from the effects of the virus.

Given so little was known about COVID-19 at the outset, how has the research community set about designing trials to explore what, if any, drugs might work as a treatment? And how can data science be applied to better understand the disease caused by COVID-19 and its implications for patients?

To help shed light on these questions, I was delighted for this episode to joined today by Jonathan Sterne, Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology within the Bristol Medical School.

During the conversation, we talk about the involvement of Jonathan’s team in the establishment of the WHO multi-centre international trial of COVID-19 antivirals, his interests in health-related big data, and his team’s local and national efforts to assemble and analyse large COVID-19 datasets to inform public policy and healthcare responses.

Thank you to Jonathan for taking the time to talk, and his team for all their fantastic work.

Episode 6: How do we predict the spread of COVID-19?

From the outset of COVID-19 being declared a public health emergency, the UK Government has been at great pains to stress its response has been guided by science.

Mathematical modelling has underpinned much of the advice given to Ministers to help them chart a way through the crisis. But how does mathematical modelling work? How accurate is it? And what role will modelling continue to play in the coming months as lockdowns around the world continue to ease?

To help answer these questions, I was joined for this episode by Dr Ellen Brooks Pollock, Senior Lecturer in Infectious Disease Mathematical Modelling.

In addition to her work at the Bristol Veterinary School and the Bristol Health Protection Research Unit, Ellen is a member of the Scientific Pandemic Infleunza Group on Modelling that informs the SAGE committee of scientists, and the SAGE-subgroup on children and schools that advises the government.

During the conversation, Ellen talks me through the ‘R’ number (or ‘reproduction’ number), the serial interval and how both of these metrics are used to predict COVID-19 transmission in the community. We also discuss how modellers factor in a whole range of unknown variables, such as the number of asymptomatic spreaders of COVID-19, when making their predictions. Finally, we discuss Ellen’s new research project to explore and predict virus transmission in a University setting.

My thanks to Ellen for sharing her expertise on this important issue.


Episode 5: The Digital Transformation of Higher Education

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had an enormous impact on the global economy and nearly every aspect of our everyday lives has been disrupted beyond recognition. This week, I wanted to explore the pandemic’s impact on education and, in particular, higher education (HE).

Since the scale of COVID-19 became clear, universities around the world (including here at Bristol) have worked incredibly hard to transition to online forms of teaching, learning and assessment. Technology enhanced learning is nothing new, of course, but the full digital transformation of nearly all academic courses across all institutions certainly is.

What do the educators at the centre of this transition think about the new reality in which they find themselves? What does technology enhanced learning mean for the actual practice of teaching (both in terms of challenges and new opportunities), and what comes next for the HE sector, post-pandemic?

To help answer these questions, I was delighted to be joined for this episode by Richard Watermeyer, Professor of Higher Education, and Sarah Davies, Director of Education Innovation and the Bristol Institute of Learning and Teaching (BILT).

Richard and his collaborators recently launched an international online attitudinal survey which seeks to understand the perspectives of those in universities now teaching online. The survey very quickly returned more than 1,100 responses (and counting) from university academics around the world.

Richard talks through the initial findings of this research, which paints a mixed and complex picture. It also reveals understandable anxieties among some academics relating to how the online transition has, and will likely continue to affect their roles as educators.

To help give us an institutional perspective of the great digital transition, I was pleased that Sarah, who leads on education innovation here at Bristol, was able to take time out to join us. Her normal focus is on supporting evidence-based educational innovation and improvement, and establishing a vision and roadmap for digital education at Bristol.

As ever, I hope you find the conversation interesting, and my thanks to Sarah and Richard for taking time out to discuss these important issues.

Episode 4: The Impact of Lockdown on Domestic Violence and Abuse

In the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, there was a great deal of concern raised about the impact it would have on instances of domestic violence. According to the UN Population Fund, at least 15 million more cases of domestic violence are predicted around the world this year as a result of efforts to halt the spread of the virus.

Here in the UK, former Prime Minister Theresa May said the government must consider the impact of the lockdown on domestic abuse as it plans its exit strategy, while Justice Secretary Robert Buckland has said help would be available for all such victims during the outbreak.

So, why has there been an increase in domestic abuse during lockdown? How is research helping to inform a public policy response? How can services best support victims in the current difficult circumstances?

To help me answer these questions, I was joined for this episode by Dr Emma Williamson.

Based within our School for Policy Studies, Emma is a Reader in Gender Based Violence and Head of the Centre for Gender and Violence Research. She’s also a co-editor of the Journal of Gender Based Violence.

The University was due to be celebrate 30 years of the Centre for Gender Violence Research this week. In that time it’s done some tremendous work that’s made a real difference to public policy in the UK and around the world. I look forward to celebrating the Centre’s achievements properly when lockdown restrictions have eventually lifted.

During the episode, Emma lists a series of resources and helplines (including online chat helplines) for victims, survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence and abuse.

These include:

Local service to Bristol for victims-survivors: