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Students and staff at the University of Exeter have made huge efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic

How our College has risen to the challenges of COVID-19

Students and staff at the University of Exeter have made huge efforts in repurposing research, teaching and University priorities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The College of Medicine and Health has refocussed research, facilities and expertise to further knowledge and support local and wider communities during the global pandemic.



Across the University, more than 40 new COVID-19 research projects have been developed, inmultiple research fields including dementia research, climate change, business economics and more.

The College of Medicine and Health has been integral to this work, with many researchers refocussing their work. Among them, Professor Sian Ellard is among our genomics experts have supported health trusts in improving diagnosis and in sequencing the COVID-19 genome. Professor Lorna Harries is leading the development of a COVID-19 test to see if patients are still infectious by testing the amount of active virus the patient is harbouring – known as viral load.

Our partnership with the region’s health trusts have kept us at the forefront of clinical research with global implications, notably the nationwide RECOVERY trial, which recently identified a cheap and widely available steroid is an effective treatment for some hospitalised people with COVID-19.

Researchers are also working to understand how isolation is impacting older people and carers, and to provide support. Professor Linda Claire is leading a major project to provide guidance for care during lockdown for those living with dementia or while Dr Siobhan O’Dwyer is leading research investigating the impact of COVID-19 on family carers with the project ‘Caring Through Coronavirus’. Meanwhile, the PROTECT online study of people aged 50 and over, designed to investigate how the brain ages, is now also exploring the impact of isolation. In Cornwall, the SMARTLINE project is investigating the use of technology guides to combat isolation.

We have also made discoveries around what makes people more susceptible to severe illness. Professor David Meltzer has analysed genetic mutations and found that having a faulty gene linked to dementia doubles risk of severe COVID-19. Earlier research also found that pre-existing diseases such as dementia are overlooked conditions linked to severe COVID-19.

Researchers have also made resources available to support people affected by the virus. Two examples of this are the REACH-HF heart failure rehabilitation programme being made free of charge, and a resource of non-screen games to support families stuck at home.

Professor Clive Ballard, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, said: “It’s been extraordinary to see the efforts our researchers have gone to change their research priorities, focusing on COVID-19 to improve global knowledge of the virus whilst balancing other personal priorities during the UK lockdown. We are extremely proud of the vital research that is being conducted.”

The volume of quality research being produced has led to the development of a COVID-19 specific research page to keep the University community and wider partners informed.



With the announcement of a UK lockdown in March 2020, teaching, examinations, graduation and open days successfully moved online in a mammoth combined effort of teaching staff working with IT and web teams.

Online teaching has provided resources and lectures for more than 25,000 students, examinations were moved online successfully, online early graduations were held for 127 medicine and medical imaging students and virtual open days were held for prospective students.

Professor Ian Fussell, Associate Dean of Education, said: “Our teaching and professional services staff have made herculean efforts to manage the move to an online University during the lockdown and have been hugely successful in a smooth transition for online learning, graduation, exams and open days. Thank you to those involved and to all our students and staff who use these online platforms and give us valuable feedback.”


Community Support

The University has focused on supporting the local community and regional NHS Trusts by allowing clinically trained staff to stop University roles to volunteer on the frontline, with more than 30 staff having done so across the South West. Research labs have donated equipment to rapidly scale up COVID-19 testing capacity in local Hospital Trusts and have also donated thousands of Personal Protective Equipment to local Trusts, Community support projects and Exeter Council.

The St Luke’s Campus teams have provided free access to their car park for staff working at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Hospital Trust to park closely to the hospital.

Staff based at Penryn campus donated more than 6,000 pairs of gloves and thousands of other PPE to local Royal Cornwall NHS Hospitals Trust, as well as donating laboratory equipment from the Truro site. The Truro based team have also renovated their Knowledge Spa building with the help of volunteers and the Eden Project to create a rest area for staff needed to work on site as well as a shop for essential goods for staff and those at Royal Cornwall NHS Hospitals Trust.

Rachel Burn, Director of College Operations, said: “Seeing teams of staff, students and researchers volunteer and donate resources to our local communities whilst undergoing a complete change in education delivery and research priorities and our way of life is humbling. I’m incredibly proud of everyone at the University who have demonstrated our commitment to help our local community, strengthen our links with local business and most importantly, prioritise health and wellbeing.”


Date: 30 June 2020

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