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[2 minute read]

Oxford Population Health is supporting a new, University-wide research initiative to combat the threat of future pandemics

The Pandemic Sciences Institute (PSI), a new multi-disciplinary research initiative across Oxford University, officially launches today. This is being celebrated with a special event featuring guest speakers from public health, held at the Blavatnik School.

As a new centre of global research collaboration and excellence, the PSI will build on decades of medical research on infectious disease and data science, besides lessons learnt from COVID-19, to combat the ever-present threat of the next pandemic. The centre’s approach will mimic the model of innovation, collaboration and agility that yielded critical breakthroughs in the response against COVID-19, including the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and the internationally-acclaimed RECOVERY Trial of COVID-19 treatments. This will be used to accelerate the understanding and development of new diagnostics, treatments, vaccines and digital disease control tools, with a focus on equitable access of benefits for all.

The institute draws together academics and experts from across Oxford’s research and innovation community, including Oxford Population Health. This broad expertise covers infectious diseases, vaccinology, immunology, structural biology, diagnostics, drug discovery, clinical trials, data science, public health, and social and political sciences.

Sir Peter Horby, Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health in the Nuffield Department of Medicine, has been appointed as the PSI’s first director. He brings over 20 years’ experience of leading research on a wide range of emerging and epidemic infections, including SARS-I, avian influenza, Ebola, Lassa fever, and plague. He has also played a crucial role in the global effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, including co-leading the RECOVERY trial alongside Professor Sir Martin Landray. 

The institute will focus on three core themes:

  • Accelerating understanding and insights: generating actionable knowledge and data (from pathogens through to patients) in near ‘real-time’ and making this globally accessible.
  • Translating research into real-world solutions: creating and deploying effective, acceptable, and equitable health technologies, including digital tools, diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.
  • Enhancing confidence, trust and impact: identifying ways to strengthen societal and political engagement, resilience, and responsiveness.

Michael Parker, Professor of Bioethics at Oxford Population Health’s Ethox Centre, will lead the Enhancing confidence, trust and impact theme. Professor Parker brings expertise in leading cross-disciplinary research to address the ethical questions relating to collective action, individual responsibility, and the common good in infectious disease response, research, and preparedness.

Professor Parker said:

‘One of the most innovative features of the PSI is its inclusion of a fully integrated programme of humanities and social science research focusing on trust and confidence. The Enhancing confidence and trust theme will bring together expertise in bioethics, social and behavioural science, history, global public policy, and sociology, from across the university. Working in collaboration with partners from the Global South, it will aim to address the profound moral questions presented by pandemics, seeking to understand the moral dilemmas of collective responses; the nature, scope and appropriate limits of privacy, confidentiality, and national sovereignty; and vitally important questions of social justice.’

The institute’s social and behavioural research will use methodologically rigorous designs and modelling to investigate the effectiveness of behaviourally driven non-pharmaceutical interventions. Research activities will pay particular attention to health inequalities, health system resilience, and social justice. An important focus will be examining the roles of misinformation, truth, and trust. Through analysis of the history of epidemics and public health interventions the PSI will seek to provide plausible explanations for the successes of some states during COVID-19 and situate pandemic preparedness and response in historical context.

Building on the experience of the Blavatnik School of Government’s highly respected COVID policy tracker, the PSI will work to develop a respected data framework ready to be adapted and deployed in future health disasters. 

The PSI aims to secure £500 million funding from philanthropists, corporate partners and government. The institute has already received a significant gift from the Moh Family Foundation.