University of Leicester junior doctor recognised for pioneering COVID-19 research

A University of Leicester researcher has been recognised for his pioneering research into how COVID-19 spreads from person to person.

Dr Daniel Pan, who has devoted the last four years of his professional life to studying COVID-19, has been awarded the Turner-Warwick Lecture Prize by the Royal College of Physicians, the professional membership body for physicians in the UK.

Dr Pan, who is also a trainee doctor at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, is currently pursuing a PhD at the University, supported by a Doctoral Research Fellowship from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR).

Dr Pan’s research is focused on a new method of testing for COVID-19, that specifically tests for how infectious an infected person may be to others.

He said: “Currently, a COVID test uses a swab that reaches the back of the nose and throat. This tells you if a person has the virus, but since not all the virus in the back of the nose or throat reaches the outside environment, it is less good at telling you whether someone is infectious to others. We have developed a facemask with strips inside that are able to capture virus that people breathe out. Our facemask sampling device directly measures the amount of virus that is breathed out into the atmosphere and thus, we believe it may be a better marker of how contagious an individual is.”

The award isn’t the first time Dr Pan, who is also an Honorary Specialist Registrar in Infectious Diseases and General Internal Medicine at University Hospitals Leicester, has received for his work. In 2021 he was included in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for his clinical and academic contributions during the pandemic. He is also the first trainee doctor to have won the Turner-Warwick Lecture twice, across two regions in the UK, in two different specialties. 

Dr Pan said: “I am honoured to have received the Turner-Warwick Lecture prize for this ongoing piece of work, and while it is nice to be personally recognised for my work, the more important aspect of the prize is that it helps to get the research out to a wider clinical, and public, audience.

“Unfortunately, COVID isn’t going away, so research into it is vital for the health of communities around the world.”

Dr Pan, as part of a wider group of researchers, has already shown that it is possible to capture SARS-CoV-2 using the facemask sampling device and that in individuals who have never been vaccinated or previously infected, the amount of virus they breathe out associates better with transmission than a simultaneously taken swab.

Given the rise in COVID-19 in the coming months, Dr Pan is actively recruiting participants into his facemask study, to see if these findings continue to apply with the emergence of different variants of the virus. Anyone from the public who has tested positive for the virus on a lateral flow test is welcome to take part, and he has encouraged them to contact him directly as soon as they do.

He said: “If we find that this method is effective, it means that we could potentially identify people breathing out large amounts of virus before they even realise it themselves and ensure that they are isolated from vulnerable individuals who may still be at risk of getting severe disease from infection.”

“Thus, facemask sampling could simultaneously have a protective effect with the use of masking, as well as a tool to early identify those who are infectious.”

Dan’s PhD work is supervised by the University of Leicester’s Professor Manish Pareek, Professor Mike Barer, and Professor Laura Gray and Professor Déirdre Hollingsworth from the University of Oxford. 

Professor Barer said: “Along with all of Dan’s supervisors, I am very proud that his achievements have been recognised in this way. Working closely with our facemask sampling team, he has brought the approach to prominence in detecting COVID infectiousness and has made it realistic in routine clinical practice.”

The Turner-Warwick lecture scheme is awarded to one junior doctor per region of the United Kingdom, with a total of 12 winners in the whole country. Named after Professor Dame Margaret Turner-Warwick, the first female president of the Royal College of Physicians, the prize allows for trainee doctors to reach beyond their own speciality, and present their work to a wide range of specialists and potential future collaborators.

Dr Pan will present his lecture at the Update In Medicine conference, on 10 October 2024, at Holywell Park, Loughborough.