Case study: Returning to research to support COVID-19 vaccine trials
An interview with Dr Geoff Sparrow
Thanks to the global efforts of the life sciences industry, researchers and volunteers, three COVID-19 vaccines have now been approved for use in the UK.
As the NHS rollout of these vaccines progresses, research trials into other COVID-19 vaccine candidates continue.
Different vaccines will be needed for different groups of people making ongoing research essential for ensuring we can protect everyone from COVID-19.
In Wessex, the delivery of COVID-19 vaccine trials would not be possible without a dedicated workforce.
Almost 500 people have come forward to support vaccine research across Dorset, Hampshire, south Wiltshire and the Isle of Wight. Among them is Dr Geoff Sparrow, a retired GP and Associate Specialist in Medical Oncology, who has joined the team working at our research hub in Dorset.
In this interview, he explains why he was inspired to come out of retirement to help the region’s vaccine efforts.
Meeting so many different people involved in the trials and working across such large teams of clinicians, specialists, volunteers and research staff has been fascinating. Seeing how well we all collaborated and worked tirelessly towards a common goal was quite inspiring.
“The pandemic is so serious for everyone,” explains Geoff. “At the age of 68, with a couple of health issues, and my wife who is shielding, we’re both at a far greater risk. But I still felt like I could help and that there must be something that I could do.”
Geoff’s attitude towards doing his bit to contribute to the COVID-19 vaccine trials summarises the incredible efforts of our NHS workers and the strength of our clinical networks. Despite personal risk, the common goal of finding a vaccine against the disease has resulted in the fastest development of vaccines in history.
After settling into lockdown life, Geoff received an email from the General Medical Council (GMC) in May 2020, putting him back on the GMC register and asking for volunteers to support the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. It piqued his interest and prompted him to explore the ways in which he could help.
Following the email from the GMC, Geoff got in touch with Dr Jonathan Sheffield, former CEO of the NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN) and a former colleague, to ask if he knew of any opportunities to help. Jonathan put Geoff in touch with the CRN in Wessex.
“Dr Patrick Moore, Principal Investigator of the Novavax vaccine trial, contacted me and asked if I could help support the trial at the Dorset Research Hub based out of Royal Bournemouth Hospital,” Geoff tells us.
For Geoff, his past experience as a principal investigator for cancer research trials enabled him to take on a role helping to start the trial in the rapidly organised Dorset Research Hub.
This involved screening volunteers into the trial - looking at their medical history, assessing their eligibility and ensuring they understood what they were participating in. Writing a prescription to then randomise people into the trial, Geoff found the work different to his past experience of clinical trials.
“I was staggered at the amount of people we put into the trial over two months,” says Geoff. “Almost 600 people were recruited in Dorset – in my past experience of cancer research trials, recruiting five or six people into a trial over two months would have been a good result!
“It was also different for me seeing patients who are well, volunteering to take part in the trial. Doing it for no personal gain, just to do their bit to help.”
Now that recruitment to the NIHR-supported Novavax trial is complete, Geoff has just begun supporting the delivery of another NIHR-supported trial called PROVENT, which began in early January.
AstraZeneca’s PROVENT trial is looking at the use of a long-acting antibody combination in people who may not respond to vaccination, for example someone who has a compromised immune system.
Geoff has a similar role in supporting the trial, with the addition of follow up visits for participants on both trials, hoping to prove effectiveness as well as assessing any potential side effects.
For Geoff, being involved in the trials has given him a sense of purpose during such a strange time.
“After over 40 years in the NHS I was happily enjoying retirement,” he remarks. “Looking after grandchildren, doing DIY and filling the time with hobbies and interests. When lockdown arrived back in March, those things were put on hold and there wasn’t a lot to do.”
“Meeting so many different people involved in the trials and working across such large teams of clinicians, specialists, volunteers and research staff has been fascinating. Seeing how well we all collaborated and worked tirelessly towards a common goal was quite inspiring.
“I truly believe that this process will give us so many valuable lessons for research and the speed at which we can work when we put our minds to it.”
Geoff intends to take a step back again once the pandemic is under control, and hopes to focus his attention back on his retirement and his family.
“I want to spend time with my grandchildren,” he says fondly. “After months of not seeing them and hugging them, it will be good to get that time back.”
The Wessex COVID-19 Vaccine Hub is still actively recruiting healthcare professionals to support the delivery of vaccine research trials across the region.
You can find out more by visiting local.nihr.ac.uk/wessex-covid-19-vaccine-hub.