Credit: Will Irving

Professor Will Irving, a virology expert at the centre of the University of Nottingham’s battle against coronavirus, talks to George White about Oxford’s vaccination attempts, the government’s failure to prepare for the pandemic and Donald Trump’s “bonkers” statements.

Will Irving, a professor of virology at the University of Nottingham, had entered semiretirement in February this year and, after spending a month in Australia with his son, was looking forward to shorter working weeks, reduced teaching hours and fewer responsibilities as he moved to a part-time role. Shortly after returning to the university, though, Professor Irving found himself at the centre of a battle against Coronavirus.

“It’s been an interesting few weeks. When I came back to the UK, Covid hadn’t quite evolved into the catastrophe it is now. Then all of a sudden there was a huge amount to do, which I certainly wasn’t expecting,” he says.

Irving is an expert in clinical virology, and specialises in the study of hepatitis and herpesviruses. After training in medicine at Cambridge, he took up a role at the University of Nottingham in 1990 to study the newly-discovered hepatitis C. Through helping to create a collaborative research network focused on the virus, Irving played a key role in better understanding hepatitis and its effects, setting up a cohort of patients in the East Midlands which has since expanded across the entire country – and now treats over 12,000 people.

Despite downplaying his individual role in tackling this infection, he is proud of what researchers have achieved over the last 25 years. “We have gone from not knowing what the virus was to creating antiviral drugs that care for around 98% of patients, all in my working lifetime,” he muses. “It is an exciting field and an area of great interest to me.”

it’s great that oxford have been conducting trials but i’ll reserve my judgement for now

One area Irving was not expecting to work in was the study of respiratory diseases, but he quickly had to adapt when the university was asked to test patients for Covid-19. Within a few weeks, Professor Irving was supporting Nottingham’s diagnostic laboratory in providing over 750 Coronavirus tests a day, as the government ramped up efforts to reach the 100,000 daily target set by the health secretary, Matt Hancock.

“The lab coped extraordinarily well. We were dealing with a lot of sick patients in such large numbers, but thankfully we were never at risk of being overrun,” he says, adding that testing is now down to around 350 a day, with the positivity rate slowly decreasing.

Irving is also on the university’s research committee, helping to allocate funding for studies into the virus. This involves analysing an “avalanche” of applications as scientists’ scramble to find a cure as soon as possible. The University of Oxford is confident that it can develop a vaccine as early as September, but Irving isn’t convinced.

“I was a little bit surprised by Oxford’s claims. Throughout history some trials have been fantastic and hugely successful, but some haven’t been successful at all – and others have actually made the disease worse. The truth is it’s unpredictable.

“It’s great that they’re conducting trials, and they are looking at Nottingham as a recruitment site for them, but I will have to reserve my judgement for now. We still need the data to prove that it will work.”

The desperate need for a vaccine could have been avoided, Irving says, had the country been braced for the possibility of a pandemic. He criticises the government for ignoring warnings from the SARS crisis, and for refusing to properly invest in a plan to tackle the threat of a new virus.

After failing a readiness test nothing was done

Ministers failed to build on a 2017 exercise which exposed flaws in the country’s defence against such a scenario, he claims, which may have cost lives. “We were hopelessly badly prepared. After failing a readiness test a few years ago, nothing was done. Preparing for a pandemic costs a lot of money, and there’s often resistance to spending on something that might not happen. But the government won’t get away with its laissez-faire attitude anymore,” he warns. “We need to better prepare.”

Fake news and scare-stories have also posed a threat to the public, with Irving condemning the likes of US president Donald Trump for making “bonkers” statements which have made people complacent. He laughs off claims that 5G masts are responsible for the spread of the virus, saying, “No, I don’t think that’s quite the case.”

Yet overall, he believes that scientific information on the virus has hit home, with messages from academics and experts effectively communicated to ensure society is equipped with the tools to stay safe.

Irving warns the public that, while social distancing will not last forever, normal life might never return to how it was before Coronavirus. Many airlines may struggle to provide services as people become more aware of the dangers of travelling in confined spaces, and more office workers may start working from home now they know it’s possible.

He hopes that one of the key changes, though, is a greater focus on personal hygiene. The simplest way to prevent future crises is for people to stop the spread of viruses at their source, he claims. “Cover your mouth when you sneeze and wash your hands more regularly. If nothing else sticks after everything passes, I hope people will at least remember that.”