UNCOVER (Usher Network for COVid-19 Evidence Reviews)

A Productive Summer for UNCOVER

During the second year of the pandemic, the need for a strong public health evidence base to help inform decision-makers has not diminished. If anything, the issues that we are all grappling with have become more complex and challenging, as we get to grips with the long-term consequences of COVID-19, and reassess our approach to work and education, healthcare, housing and public safety, with the ever-present threat of the virus resurging.

In this context, UNCOVER’s work, providing rigorous but rapid reviews to help answer real-world questions, has never been more needed, and we are delighted that the summer of 2021 has allowed us a number of opportunities to begin piloting new working relationships with external partners, as well as exploring diverse and fascinating questions on the impact of COVID-19.

Thanks to funding from DDI’s “Build Back Better” Open Call, UNCOVER was able to establish its first-ever internship scheme, providing an opportunity for our most experienced student volunteers to develop in roles as reviewers, mentors and coordinators. 

Read more about the UNCOVER Internship Scheme.

The first questions our talented intern team grappled with were to do with Long Covid (how prevalent is it? What are its symptoms?) and the infectious dose of COVID-19 (how many viral particles in the air will increase the risk of infection?). The first review was intended to inform government planning in respect of future healthcare need; the second, to provide important context for an exciting project developed by DataInnovation.ai, modelling virus transmission within buildings.

Craig Fenton, COO at DataInnovation.ai, said: 

“Please pass on our huge thanks and gratitude to the whole Uncover team.  As an innovative start-up applying AI to COVID infection transmission in our buildings, access to quality research from around the globe is critical to our modelling and development, and something we could not do within our small team.  The professional service that Uncover provided to us to assist with COVID infection was second to none. The professionalism of the team,  time taken to understand what we were trying to achieve and the subsequent output, exactly when promised, has been fabulous for us and has moved us forward significantly.  I know we want to continue to engage further with the team for additional validation works on other components of our codified COVID emissions, transmission and infection modelling used in our WorkSafeAI Platform.”

Read the Long Covid review.

Read the Infectious Dose review.

UNCOVER has just published two reviews which were conducted from June to August, looking at two very diverse topics: How have COVID-19 mitigation measures impacted on students’ mental health? And, how does alcohol consumption impact on compliance with COVID-19 regulations? In addition to exploring new topics, we took the opportunity of these reviews to introduce a new role within UNCOVER: the student review coordinator. Taken on by experienced UNCOVER volunteers, our coordinators shepherded the reviews along from milestone to milestone, managing and mentoring the student team, and taking responsibility for some key decisions about the direction of the reviews. Two fantastic MPH graduates, Lara Goodwin and Durga Kulkarni, blazed the trail as our very first review coordinators.

While led by UNCOVER, both of these reviews were carried out in collaboration with teams at Public Health Scotland, with the aim of adding to their evidence base to support policy-makers. The close liaison between the two organisations helped to ensure that UNCOVER’s reviews were focused on questions with real-world relevance to decision-makers and to our daily lives, and is a model that we hope to develop further in future.

Read the Alcohol and Compliance review.

Read the Student Mental Health review.

We were also pleased to be asked to provide evidence on the relationship between serious COVID-19 outcomes and severe asthma in adults and children, to inform the JCVI’s considerations on planning for COVID-19 booster vaccinations. This work was carried out on an entirely voluntary basis, and we are especially grateful to our volunteer team, coordinated by PhD student Bohee Lee, for putting together such a thorough review in the space of less than three weeks, to meet an urgent request.

Read the Severe Asthma review.

As summer turns to autumn, and with the challenges of another pandemic winter ahead, UNCOVER continues to welcome requests to provide public health evidence syntheses to inform decision-makers at all levels. We have recently been commissioned by the World Health Organization to carry out further work on the relationship between COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), with another superb student team taking the lead on producing weekly summaries of the latest evidence, as well as conducting rapid reviews to look at the key questions in more depth.

Read the COVID-19, Influenza and RSV Rapid Review.

Read the Weekly Living Reviews.

As UNCOVER continues to work towards a more sustainable working model, one constant has been our collaborative staff-student approach to conducting reviews. Staff and students both contribute significant time on a voluntary basis to enable reviews to be completed to a high standard and within tight timeframes. We were pleased to secure short-term grants during 2021 which enabled us to pay a small core team for each review, but the additional discretionary time, effort and quality of work which everyone brings to the team is what really makes a difference.

Our volunteer model was born out of the urgency of the early days of the pandemic, and the public service ethos which all our members bring to UNCOVER; as the second year of the pandemic draws on, we recognise the need to ensure our ways of working are balanced and sustainable. Student development has always been central to our work, with students and graduates encouraged to gain experience in the real-world application of their public health training, and step into new roles as peer mentors, workshop facilitators, conference presenters and review coordinators. However, we also recognise the need to look critically at what works well and what needs improvement; how students can get the most out of their time with UNCOVER, and be suitably rewarded for the work they put in.

With that in mind, our student-led PTAS project, which is now drawing to a conclusion after a full summer of work, has focused on the creation of resources for new students, together with a qualitative study of current staff and student experiences, to help inform our planning for the future. Securing ongoing funding, which ensures UNCOVER’s work is sustainable and allows us to do justice to the effort of our students and staff, remains our biggest challenge as we look ahead to 2022.