In the mid-80s, as HIV swept through communities in the US and the UK, a young Michael Malim moved to America to understand more about this new infectious disease. Over twenty years later, Professor Michael Malim now finds himself at the forefront of yet another pandemic.
After completing his PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Oxford, Mike planned to go to the US for two years but he ended up staying for fourteen, training as a virologist. Enticed back to the UK in 2001 to establish a new department for infectious diseases at King’s College London, he is now the Head of the university’s School of Immunology and Microbial Sciences. “Some said it was risky, but I always think where there is risk, there is a challenge. Infections are great teaching tools and incredibly important for human health, societal well-being, and economies worldwide. Viruses are great keys to unlocking how biology and bodies work.”
In February 2020, when the high transmissibility of COVID-19 became clear, King’s made a collective decision to halt all other laboratory-based research and shift its focus to the new virus. The disease, and its inevitable impact on the world, was still largely unknown. “No one expected it to be as big as it was.”
Normal research funding takes six to nine months to come through, but the donation from the Huo Family Foundation was very different. “One of the great things about this grant, apart from it being extremely generous, was that it was rapidly funded, and the scope was flexible which enables us to be agile on the work we support.” Mike had two days to write the proposal; King’s received the grant within two months.
The funding has been shared across four different labs in their pursuit to understand COVID-19. “Things change so quickly so the ability to be nimble underpins a lot of what we do.” Amongst other things, Mike and his team are looking to understand how the virus grows so we can better control it, develop antigen testing which could provide rapid results, and investigate the immune response in various patient and community groups such as those receiving treatment for cancer.
King’s has vast and diverse expertise in discovery science, research and clinical areas. If Mike could point to one positive outcome from the pandemic, it is that collaboration between departments is better now than ever before. Different teams came together to tackle the problems COVID-19 posed. “[The research] became an enormous opportunity to collaborate more widely and deeply with colleagues to share our expertise.”
Although it may feel to many like normality is in sight, research from the scientific community on COVID-19 is in its infancy. “I think we will work on coronaviruses for a long time. There are so many elements to it – growth, replication, vaccination, and consequences like long-COVID where there is much that still needs to be understood. It has been a privilege to have this funding as we always want to do something impactful and COVID was of the utmost importance.”