Professor Sir Alimuddin (Ali) Zumla has led efforts to tackle Covid-19 internationally from the very start of the pandemic, setting up and leading several international, multidisciplinary and collaborative projects in research, capacity building, training and advocacy.
His wide-ranging research with collaborators around the world – resulting so far in more than 60 papers on Covid-19 including 6 in Nature journals – has included autopsy and immunological studies to understand this new disease, and clinical trials seeking to calm the overactive immune response seen in severe Covid-19.
“The most promising therapeutic approaches are those that modulate the immune response,” says Sir Ali, who is Consultant Infectious Diseases Physician at UCLH and supported by the UCLH Biomedical Research Centre. “We have seen promising results of use of a type of stem cell known as mesenchymal stromal cells which can be cultured in bulk from human umbilical cords and infused into patients to dampen the immune response and reduce lung tissue damage.”
Sir Ali is optimistic about vaccine development but cautions that this will take time and that during the current status quo of having no cures or vaccines, standard public health measures – including social distancing, hand washing and use of face masks – will need to remain in place for now.
Aside from research, Sir Ali has advised governments in developing countries on infection control measures; assisted in capacity development work which meant African countries were prepared for Covid-19 early; and offers advice and mentorship to colleagues around the world.
He has also continued to deliver and lead teams providing clinical care for patients with a range of infections including Covid-19 at University College Hospital Westmoreland Street site.
Sir Ali says that beyond existing public health measures, more fundamental work needs to take place around the world to tackle Covid-19 and other infectious diseases now and in the future.
“We need to build capacity in countries and regions around the world – particularly in the developing world – to tackle outbreaks. We need to put in place surveillance systems to monitor disease and spot emerging threats. It is important that screening takes place for all infectious diseases when the patient presents at points of healthcare with fever. For example, if we are screening for Covid-19 in developing countries, we should not be thinking about this screening in isolation, but thinking how we can screen at the same time for diseases such as HIV, TB and malaria.”
“But perhaps most importantly of all, we need to work closely with colleagues from the veterinary sector, as a joined up approach between human and animal work to tackle new emerging infectious diseases with epidemic potential.
“Viruses like coronaviruses or Ebola virus from animals and can jump from species to humans, so we have to work together with the animal sector – this holistic approach is the only way forward.
“For instance, we are now all familiar with the idea of self-isolation when carrying or potentially carrying a virus. In infectious diseases sometimes the approach we need to take is to quickly detect a new outbreak and isolate affected humans before epidemic spread occurs.”
It is this ‘One Health’ approach that Sir Ali has pioneered and championed – where colleagues in human and animal health sectors from across Africa and Europe are collaboratively monitor, prepare for and tackle infectious diseases.
The ‘One Health’ concept is at the centre of international collaborations Sir Ali has set up and co-leads, includes the Pandora-ID-Net initiative – the Pan-African network for rapid research, response and preparedness for infectious disease epidemics.
This network has brought together researchers, public health and healthcare workers, and policymakers from Africa, Europe, Middle East and Asia into a growing consortium taking a One Health approach, who meet on a regular basis to discuss a variety of international work programmes.
Sir Ali says his last main goal before retirement is to extend this network across continents and put this One-Health consortium on a secure footing by securing long term funding and commitments from governments to sustain what is built long term – in order to make a real difference for controlling emerging and re-emerging infections.
Sir Ali has had a long and distinguished career and is globally recognised for his expertise and leadership in infectious diseases.
But the start of his career was marked with a very personal experience with infection. While still a junior doctor, he nearly died after contracting TB meningitis and being paralysed from the neck down.
“I was told I would never walk again, but this prediction did not come true, and aside from a few neurological issues that stayed with me, I was able to make an almost full recovery.”
Sir Ali has been accorded over 20 accolades for his work from medical and scientific bodies and from heads of state. He has been granted the Grand Commander of Distinguished Services – the highest civilian award in 2012 by the President of Zambia, the country of his birth. And in 2017 he was knighted by the Queen.
But asked what he is most proud of, Sir Ali talks about his interactions with patients: “It’s the clinical aspects that I love the most – being with patients on a day to day basis. This is where the pleasure comes. You take your time, talk to the patients, and get to know them, and take the opportunity to teach and empower medical students, junior and senior staff with the latest knowledge.
“Research is also very interesting and so is the international work, but it’s the patient interaction and seeing them get better which is the best and most rewarding bit.”