Chief Scientist Office Festive Message 2021
21st December 2021
Euan Dick, Head of the Chief Scientist Office (CSO) reflects on major research advances throughout 2021 and the vital role that our research community continues to play in saving and improving lives
As we come to the end of another challenging year, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone deeply for their huge commitment and unerring hard work. I do not underestimate how difficult this year has been, both professionally and personally, as we continue to navigate our way through this pandemic.
The remarkable, collaborative efforts of our community have supported rapid delivery of innovative platform trials like RECOVERY, surveillance studies like GENOMICC and SIREN, and an extensive vaccine research programme.
These combined endeavours have enabled far better understanding of the virus, identified effective treatment and therapy options and, vitally, brought about the approval of COVID-19 vaccines that have decisively slowed the spread of the disease and reduced its severity in those who have gone on to become infected. One need only consider the significant reductions in hospitalisation and death rates during the first and third waves of infection to see how far we have come in an incredibly short time.
Reaching this stage would never have been possible without the enduring professionalism, ambition, and energy of Scotland’s dynamic research community. We have adapted with great speed and tenacity to what can only be described as the biggest challenge our health service has ever faced.
We have proudly upheld these efforts throughout 2021 and strengthened them in many areas too.
Important work continues in managing ongoing COVID research, but the impact of the pandemic on non-COVID research is undeniable, and therefore significant effort has been invested in restarting research across the health and social care portfolio. This has been a carefully managed process, recognising pressures across the system but also the fundamental necessity of supporting research, development and innovation across the spectrum of clinical need.
We have further managed the inevitable challenges that come with adapting systems and processes to match the shortened timescales that have seen the complex transition from research to clinical use successfully realised faster than any of us could have predicted before the pandemic.
Substantial progress has been made and we should not understate our achievements and contribution. Many of the worst aspects of the pandemic have been offset, and in some respects, overcome thanks to the tireless efforts of our healthcare professionals, researchers, participants, regulators, medical charities, and industry.
Unfortunately, we are now presented with a new challenge in the form of the omicron variant. As I write, this is a fast-moving situation, and we must draw on the substantial advances and achievements we have made so far while continuing to use our research resource to best effect.
We are already working hard to make a meaningful contribution. The COV-BOOST study – the first in the world to provide vital data on the impact of a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on patients’ immune responses – has recruited over 120 volunteers across NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and is shaping the UK booster programme while also providing vital evidence for global vaccination efforts. The study takes on heightened importance as booster activity ramps up against the challenge of Omicron.
As case numbers continue to rise, PANORAMIC, a nationwide platform trial, will rapidly assess the effectiveness of a range of novel, purpose-designed COVID-19 antivirals. These new orally administered treatments are intended for use in the very early stages of infection, by people in the community with COVID-19 who are at higher risk of complications from the disease. The results from the national study will provide a clearer understanding on how antivirals work in the UK population – which has a high vaccination rate – enabling the NHS to better plan how to make COVID-19 antivirals available for those who would benefit from them most.
Continued surveillance studies including GENOMICC, SIREN and ISARIC will also be vital as we seek to understand the new variant and track changes to the virus and its subsequent effects.
We can further these goals by advocating the critical role of research in realising vital healthcare advances, improving patient outcomes, and focussing NHS resources where they will be most effective; but also by setting our sights higher when it comes to delivering excellence on the world stage by better connecting NHS, industry and academia, and involving patients and the public more in research.
Addressing the challenges of the pandemic has provided a foundation for building a more resilient, adaptable and innovative research system and embedding clinical research at the heart of patient care across the NHS. It is the underpinning message in the UK vision for clinical research – Saving and Improving Lives – which sets out a bold and ambitious vision for the future of clinical research delivery across the UK. I am very appreciative of our work on this, as well as our collaborative efforts to learn lessons from the pandemic and build back better.
Despite the pandemic and the shifting priorities it has caused, our goals remain fundamentally the same – improving the nation’s health whilst continuously supporting sustainable economic growth and building on Scotland’s status as a prime location for researchers, healthcare professionals, businesses and investors.
Uncertainty still prevails in the weeks and months ahead, but I am confident that we, as a research, development and innovation community, will adapt and deliver as we have before. I am incredibly proud of our research efforts and encourage you to retain optimism, reflect on our collective achievements so far, and we will continue to fight back against the pandemic.
On behalf of CSO and the NRS Management Board, I thank you all once again for your incredible energy and unwavering commitment across 2021 and wish you a happy festive season.