Nerves of steel: working on the frontline of COVID-19

Wednesday, 29 July, 2020

Nerves of steel: working on the frontline of COVID-19

Oxford University scientist and John Monash Foundation scholar Dr Harrison Steel has been directly involved in two significant projects that have impacted the COVID-19 health crisis.

One of these projects has evolved into a form of rapid testing for COVID-19. The other is OxVent, a project devised to answer the demands of the current global ventilator shortage.

Tell us about your experience working on the frontline of COVID-19.

It has been a very busy time. Once the severity of the ongoing pandemic became clear, there was a worldwide realisation that fighting and eventually overcoming the virus would require a huge scientific and engineering effort. Many departments and research groups at Oxford immediately switched focus to working on this challenge, and I am glad to have been able to contribute my expertise.

What did you study at university that allowed you to be selected and involved in the medical frontline of a pandemic?

As an undergraduate I studied Mechanical Engineering and Science at the University of Sydney and worked in many industries including space science (at NASA Ames), quantum computing (at the University of Sydney) and particle physics (at DESY). I was then awarded a Monash scholarship to go to the University of Oxford, where I completed a PhD (here called a D.Phil) in Engineering, focusing on robotics and biotechnology. My work focused on developing new biotechnologies for medicine and industry, and I also founded a spin-out venture that produces open-source robotic technologies. I now hold a fellowship at the University of Oxford, where my research spans fields from synthetic biology to experimental robotics to evolution.

Were you selected from a group of other talented Oxford scientists to participate in these projects? What was this process like?

The past few months have been frantic — across the university, projects have been accelerated to address many facets of the international response to COVID-19. In many cases these projects may have started with a few academic researchers or students, who then brought colleagues with expertise in related fields, quickly building large interdisciplinary teams.

I was already working in a laboratory that specialises in developing novel ‘biosensors’ — their work quickly transitioned into the project on rapid COVID-19 diagnostics. My experience in building new biotechnologies led to me being contacted to help on the OxVent project. Subsequently I have been consulted on many related projects, including (for example) lending expertise to build models of virus transmission in several countries and helping related ventilator projects around the world.

The collaborative atmosphere at Oxford has enabled widespread cooperation on many of these projects. A time of crisis is not a time for overly aggressive competition — researchers have been generous to lend their time and expertise to help on many different fronts, and likewise they have been quick to consult and include colleagues that can provide other skills and expertise.

Can you tell us more about the two projects you were/are involved with?

Most of my time in the past two months has been spent working on the OxVent ventilator project. This project was initiated by a PhD student in a biomedical engineering group here at the University of Oxford. A team quickly assembled to drive this project, for which I have been leading the electrical engineering effort. In the space of three days we rapidly produced a prototype of our ventilator technology, which we presented to the UK cabinet office as part of their Ventilator Challenge. OxVent was selected as one of the few novel ventilator designs to be funded in this competition, and we set to work on building, testing and clinically validating our system.

The government ordered more than 5000 OxVent units, with initial deliveries scheduled within the month. Meeting this deadline would require a round-the-clock effort from our team. At this point we were very fortunate to be paired up with medical device manufacturers Smith & Nephew, who provided decades of experience in product development, manufacturing and logistics. A large part of our team travelled up to their manufacturing plant in Hull and worked in partnership with their engineering and manufacturing experts to refine our system and complete the rigorous testing required for regulatory approval of the device. Seeing our technology progress rapidly was very rewarding, with a personal highlight for me being the Queen lending use of her personal helicopter to transport circuit boards I had designed across the country.

In the subsequent weeks the evolving pandemic situation in the UK thankfully did not reach the ‘worst-case’ predicted scenarios. This was great news for us, and the British people as a whole, as it meant that the NHS would (for the most part) be able to cope with the pandemic whilst remaining within capacity. However, this also meant that OxVent (and the majority of the other Ventilator Challenge projects) would likely not be required for the domestic fight against COVID-19; pre-existing commercial ventilators would cover this need. Upon receiving this news we immediately began reaching out to our international networks, as many countries (particularly in the developing world) have very limited access to these life-saving technologies, and are still far from reaching the peak of their domestic pandemic. We are now working on several fronts to get OxVent units deployed where they are most needed.

In addition to my direct involvement on the OxVent project, I have also found myself in the right place at the right time to contribute to several other ongoing COVID projects. This has included helping to develop easily accessible home testing procedures for COVID-19, working with teams developing mathematical models of virus transmission and spread outside of the UK, and providing advice to groups across half a dozen countries working on engineering projects similar to OxVent. At the same time I have been grateful to receive advice myself from leading experts in many areas; the past few months have been a great time for unity and collaboration in the international scientific and medical communities.

When you did start working on them, what were your day-to-day responsibilities like?

During the development of the OxVent device we worked long hours, seven days a week, to deliver a technology that could meet the clinical demands, whilst also being feasible for rapid manufacture on a large scale. This involved traditional engineering work (such as designing the system’s electronics, user interface and software), management of supply chains and logistics (including working with companies in the UK and abroad to secure supply of the components in our system) and development of the final manufacturing procedures for OxVent. In parallel I was working on testing and validation of our prototypes and (eventually) final design, which included working in industrial laboratories as well as visiting hospitals to use specialised ventilator test equipment.

Did you get the opportunity to work directly with prominent figures within the UK healthcare industry?

Throughout the pandemic there has been a great spirit of collaboration between scientists, engineers, clinicians and policymakers; I feel lucky to have both benefited and contributed to this effort. For example, with the OxVent team we worked with members of the UK government cabinet, senators and governors in several other countries, leading figures in the NHS and hospital trusts, experts in medical device design and regulation, and many leading engineering and manufacturing firms.

Do you have any insight or thoughts into how the UK healthcare system might come out of the crisis and what will change?

Undoubtedly major changes will occur in health care. I’d like to believe there will be a new appreciation for the services of frontline workers such as nurses and doctors. I also hope there will be a renewed focus on the funding of scientific and clinical research. In many areas of enquiry — particularly those where it is difficult to put concrete dollar amounts on a cost versus benefit of analysis — research funding has long been difficult to come by, with many in government and industry seeing such research as an ‘optional’ investment. Hopefully the economic impact of the current pandemic will put these (comparatively small) costs into perspective, encouraging future research spending that will help ensure the world is better prepared next time around.

Have you been following any other medical projects that you are excited to see the outcomes of in relation to COVID?

Yes, there has been a huge effort across the scientific community to fight COVID on all fronts. One project that I am particularly closely following is the Oxford Vaccine project, which is already moving forward with clinical trials. If effective, such vaccines will give society a clear path out of the crisis.

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