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Koen Pouwels

Each year, the Medical Research Foundation (MRF)’s Emerging Leaders Prize celebrates the achievements of early-career researchers with clear potential to develop into an international leader within their field. This year, Oxford Population Health’s Dr Koen Pouwels was awarded a joint first-place prize in recognition of his COVID-19 research.

Dr Koen Pouwels, Senior Researcher at Oxford Population Health’s Health Economics Research Centre (HERC), is a specialist in infectious disease and antimicrobial resistance modelling, and assessing the impact of these on health and economic outcomes. Prior to the pandemic, his work focused on performing epidemiological analyses of antibiotic prescribing to inform national policies and clinical practice. But in April 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Pouwels pivoted his research programme to address the urgent need for data on how the virus was spreading across the UK.

Working with the Office for National Statistics and the Department for Health and Social Care, Dr Pouwels applied his experience in large-scale epidemiological analysis to co-design the UK’s national COVID-19 Infection Survey, the largest COVID-19 household survey in the world. The survey includes over 500,000 participants providing monthly nose and throat swabs and information about symptoms, behaviour, and work-related questions. A subset of individuals aged 16 years or older also provide monthly blood samples, used for roughly 150,000 antibody tests per month. Updates from the study were shared weekly with the Prime Minister’s Office and key government advisory groups, and directly informed Government policies such as the ‘rule of 6’ and the second national lockdown. Additional analyses led or co-led by Dr Pouwels have improved our understanding of local trends in COVID-19 infections and antibody levels; vaccination uptake; impact of the different COVID-19 vaccines; school openings; and transmissibility of the Alpha and Delta coronavirus variants.

Alongside this work, Dr Pouwels is also involved in projects which are exploring whether sewage samples could be used to track COVID-19 infections, and whether specific markers from blood samples could help predict which COVID-19 patients should be prioritised for intensive care. Recognising his expertise, various international agencies have consulted Dr Pouwels for advice, including the Dutch Government on setting up a community-based coronavirus survey in the Netherlands, and the Institut Pasteur on how COVID-19 monitoring could be optimised for care homes in France.

The applications for the MRF Emerging Leaders Prize were reviewed by an expert panel chaired by MRF Board of Trustees, Professor Nick Lemoine. Due to an exceptionally high number and standard of applications, the panel decided to award four joint first-place prizes, each worth £100,000. The panel commented that Dr Pouwels ‘had moved quickly into COVID-19 research and had a huge impact on the pandemic response’.

Dr Pouwels said: ‘I am delighted to receive this award. The prize money will enable me to expand my group by hiring and mentoring a mathematical modeller, a specialist currently lacking in my team. This will allow us to integrate all the lessons from our work so far to optimise new and existing SARS-CoV-2 surveillance programmes, including methods suitable for low income countries. Looking further into the future, I foresee that this work can be extended to other areas of disease surveillance, such as antimicrobial resistance surveillance and future pandemics.’

Find out more about Dr Pouwels’ work during the pandemic, and the other MRF Emerging Leaders Award winners, in this short video and on the MRF website.