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The University of Southampton

Respiratory expert address issues around understanding and living with COVID-19

Published: 19 October 2020
Professor Sir Stephen Holgate
Professor Sir Stephen Holgate spoke to a global online audience during his Distinguished Lecture.

University of Professor Sir Stephen Holgate has called for the development of both vaccines and drugs if we are to successfully stop COVID-19 in its tracks.

Speaking to a global audience during a University Distinguished Lecture delivered online, Sir Stephen also expressed the need for more study into the long-term effects of COVID and encouraged us, as a society, “to learn more about how the human race might be able to protect itself by switching on our innate immune response and not just rely on vaccines to give us the adapative response.”

Recognised as one of the top specialists in his field, both nationally and internationally, Professor Holgate has transformed our understanding of respiratory diseases during his 40-year career at Southampton. Sir Stephen has devoted his career to focusing on the interface between basic sciences and clinical application to improve our understanding and treatment of allergy and asthma and remains one of the world’s foremost spokespeople on the dangerous impact of air pollution.

His many leading appointments, including Government advisor, underline his high level of expertise and experience. He was also knighted for his services to medical research in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday honours list.

Sir Stephen is also one of the cofounders of Synairgen, a University of Southampton spin-out company established in 2004 to develop inhaled interferon beta which has proven effective against viral respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.

In his lecture, entitled Understanding and living with COVID-19 – past, present and future?, Sir Stephen said “over the last six months, we’ve never seen anything like this pandemic. Viruses are designed to just reproduce and keep reproducing and nobody is spared unless there are protective mechanisms in place.”

He also explained that whilst most people who become infected recover quite quickly from COVID-19 – around 10-15 days on average - but there are many still symptomatic 35-40 days after being infected and a number of these are developing long COVID.


“Long COVID is a new disease that the NHS will have to cope with,” Sir Stephen continued. “It’s a multi-system disorder which is described by people who experience it as being ‘taken off their feet’ and going from one day to the other not knowing whether they’re going to be able to do anything that they normally do; and this may last days, weeks or months.

“There are now 16 different symptoms from long COVID including particular features that have commonality with chronic fatigue syndrome and ME which can occur after viral infections so we’ve got a lot to learn about this” he emphasised.

Another issue Sir Stephen highlighted is aound those who don’t fully develop COVID-19 but may be asymptomatic carriers who may, in fact, be infected but limiting the infection very locally inside small areas of the lung so do not develop the systemic symptoms we understand as COVID-19.

“We know from genetic studies that those with severe COVID-19, have a defect in their ability to generate interferon and in those who have the infection with this virus, the signature in the lung when they’re going on to develop the disease lacks this interferon response,” he explained. “They’re mounting this first step in the innate immune response and they are not generating their interferons adequately. This is what happens in older people, those with diabetes or who are obese, those with COPD and asthma and immuno-compromised people; their ability to generate these interferons is compromised, hence their risk is increased.

“We need a vaccine as it’s important that we increase our adaptive immunity and protect the population,” said Sir Stephen. “But we also need drugs that stop the virus in its tracks once people are infected. We do not have a drug like that available to us yet and hopefully interferon might be.

“We need to understand the long-term effects of this terrible virus and I would like to suggest that from the interferon journey, we’ve learned something about how the human race might be able to protect itself in the long term by switching on the innate immune response and not just relying on vaccines to give us the adapative response,” he concluded.

Please click here to view Sir Stephen’s Distinguished Lecture on YouTube.

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