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27th August 2021

Research nurse reflects on challenges and lessons of Oxford vaccine trial

A senior research nurse who was redeployed from running cancer studies to manage a Covid-19 vaccine trial has spoken of her privilege at playing such a vital role in the pandemic response.

Mandy Edwards is a Cancer Research UK senior research nurse for Wales, who works with Health and Care Research Wales and Aneurin Bevan University Health Board.

“We felt finally like the public and the politicians were suddenly realising just why we we’ve always gone on about research and how vital it was”

Mandy Edwards

When the pandemic hit last spring and several cancer research studies were put on hold, Ms Edwards was charged with finding ways and strategies to keep essential cancer studies open.

But on top of this, her health board was approached by the University of Oxford to collaborate and run an Oxford Covid-19 vaccine trial, and, subsequently, Ms Edwards was asked to be involved.

The vaccine, developed by the University of Oxford with AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company, is now one of several Covid-19 vaccines approved for use in the UK.

The trial recruited health workers within Aneurin Bevan University Health Board to be vaccinated and in total saw 2,500 staff register their interest, 800 screened and 500 involved in the actual study.

She described how the “energy was amazing” among staff who “wanted to do their bit” for the UK’s Covid-19 response.

“We’d have surgeons say, ‘I’m going to finish in theatre in 30 minutes, but I want to come, I want to be part of it’ and we’d see if we could juggle people and hold them a slot because you didn’t want to disappoint people,” Ms Edwards told Nursing Times.

Likewise, the multidisciplinary team running the trial went over and above, with some nurses driving almost two hours to help run clinics, explained Ms Edwards. “It was a very powerful momentum,” she added.

Ms Edwards was involved in the management and planning of the clinics and she said the scale of the task, especially amid Covid-19 restrictions, “was not easy”.

“I think this really showed the wealth of research nurse experience, as well as that clinical experience, in that we led the planning and the running of those clinics and these were complex,” she told Nursing Times.

She also helped to administer the vaccines and placebos, while being prepared for any adverse reactions.

As the trial went on it was revealed that the team was required to run booster clinics – which is how it was uncovered that two doses of the vaccine are needed.

Ms Edwards described the trial as “rapid”, noting how they had to open up a space that was previously shut down and revamp it so that it was a suitable hub for the study.

Having been first approached by the University of Oxford around April 2020, Ms Edwards said it was around a month later that the team first opened its doors.

The speed of the trial was highlighted by Ms Edwards as one of the challenges as it had been very different from what she was used to with cancer studies.

Although aware research “can be intense”, she said she had never “worked at such a pace” before.

However, she said the speed at which the research was able to be carried out was also “exhilarating because it showed us what could be achieved”.

The demographic she was working with was also different.

With cancer trials, the participants tended to be “elderly, quite poorly people”, whereas for the Covid-19 vaccine trial it was “fit and healthy people and a younger demographic”, she said.

“I feel privileged to be able to have done what I could do, because I know a lot of people really wanted to do something”

Mandy Edwards

The trial is ongoing and has been extended by the University of Oxford to test the longevity of the immune response the vaccine provides.

Ms Edwards has now returned to her role at Cancer Research UK but is taking forward what she learnt during the Covid-19 trial.

She is currently working with Health and Care Research Wales and with cancer networks across the country to review whether cancer trials could run in a similar way in terms of using one health board or trust to lead on a study for the whole of Wales.

Usually, a research sponsor would deal with up to seven health boards across Wales for one study.

On the whole, she said her experience during the pandemic had enabled her to learn about her “own personal strengths as a nurse, and as someone who can take a lead in quite a complex situation”.

She added: “I feel privileged to be able to have done what I could do, because I know a lot of people really wanted to do something and how lucky was I that I could answer that call, what greater privilege could I ask for?”

She was also delighted to see the wider population recognising just how important research was.

“I was very intensely involved with this incredible collaboration; the energy of everyone, we all just really wanted to be present and to do what we could do to help because this was unprecedented,” said Ms Edwards.

“Because we are research active, we know the vital importance of research and we almost felt finally like the public and the politicians were suddenly realising just why we’ve always gone on about research and how vital it was.”