Trevor phoned that same afternoon from hospital, struggling to speak through a mask, to say he was being admitted to intensive care, and was “terrified”. “I told him not to talk and to save his breath to get as much oxygen as possible,” Kelly says. The following day a nurse telephoned to say he had suffered complications and been put into an induced coma.
Even for a family used to navigating the NHS – their daughter, Ellie-Mae, is a student nurse at King’s College London – Kelly says the following weeks were a desperate battle for information, as they were banned from visiting the hospital, in order to help contain the virus.
Over the course of those agonising weeks, Kelly was approached by a research team at the hospital and asked if Trevor would be willing to donate a sample of his blood to contribute to a new project attempting to sequence the genomes of thousands of sufferers of Covid-19 in the hope of unlocking preventative medicines and – ultimately – a cure. She did not hesitate to give her consent. “I know my Trevor, and he would have said if you can use that to do something that could help millions in the future, then do it.”
Trevor’s sample (taken from waste blood which otherwise was to be disposed of) was the very first collected at Barts Health by the genomics research team which also includes Queen Mary University of London and Genomics England, and headed by Sir Mark Caulfield, a professor of clinical pharmacology described as ‘one of the most influential researchers in the world’.
The team is working across the country and hoping to collect samples of 20,000 patients severely affected by Covid-19 and a further 15,000 who have had the illness confirmed, but only reported mild symptoms. Comparing the two, explains Sir Mark, will help establish which genetic factors determine the severity of the virus. Last week Dr Hans Kluge, director for the World Health Organisation in Europe, warned of a second deadly wave of infections later this year and the research team are in a race against time to secure as many samples as possible. So far the team has amassed around 4,000 samples and hope to get the first part of sequencing completed this summer, but need many more to come forward.
The Barts team are calling on everyone to carry a research volunteer card suggesting willingness to join in studies if they contract Covid-19. In particular, they are keen to recruit BAME individuals, such as Trevor Belle, to understand why those from ethnic minority backgrounds seem to be disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.
Sir Mark says the study is unique, due to this country’s investment in genomics and the partnership with the NHS. A vaccine being available for the winter is, he says, “very unlikely”. Instead our hopes rest on repurposing existing drugs – and to do this, unpicking the microbiology of the virus is key.
“This is a virus that has the potential to come back in a secondary or tertiary wave,” Sir Mark says. “How soon we address that depends on our understanding of the biology of what is happening.”