The highs and lows of being a research nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

New COVID-19 treatments are being rapidly tested through a national clinical trial platform. The AGILE initiative is accelerating drugs through testing stages in a matter of months rather than years, while maintaining a high level of safety at all times.

Daiana Ferro is a research nurse at the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility (CRF). She is working on the AGILE trial of a first-in-human antibody treatment (CST5).

Daiana spoke to Southampton Clinical Trials Unit about how she came to be a research nurse and how it feels to be part of clinical trials for new COVID-19 treatments.

“When I started my nursing degree at home in Brazil in 2013, I knew that I wanted to become a research nurse. So, when I came to the UK, I applied for a research assistant’s job and spent two years in a pathology lab to boost my knowledge of trials,” Daiana explains.

Once she had her UK nursing registration, Daiana got a job in the intensive care unit at South Tees University Hospital in Middlesbrough during the second and third waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a very difficult time; a brutal time” she says. “We lost a lot of patients. It was particularly difficult when a patient was deteriorating but was still awake. They knew about everything; they could see what was going on around them. We saw a lot of patients dying alone, so we were their families at that time.

“When I saw the AGILE job in Southampton, I knew I wanted to help run this trial to try to improve people’s lives and to offer a proper treatment for COVID-19.”

Trialling new COVID-19 treatments in Southampton

Daiana now works on the CST5 trial of a monoclonal antibody to treat COVID-19. This is a first-in-human trial of a drug that researchers hope will mean patients are less likely to be admitted to hospital with severe symptoms, while also triggering a long-lasting immune response to further control the infection.

“When we get the list of confirmed COVID-19 cases, my job is to call eligible patients to invite them to join the trial,” she says. “Some are obviously very scared and don’t want to be part of it, which is fine. It’s often young people who are interested in the research and are keen to take part.

“When those who consent come in for the treatment, they spend 24 hours with us. Because this is a new drug, we need to make sure there are no side-effects, and the patient is safe. They then have follow-up visits over the next six months. It is quite complex, but it’s crucial to make sure that the patient is completely safe and well through the whole process.”

Phase I of the trial to test the safety and correct dose of the new antibody is now almost completed, and a Phase II trial to test it against an existing antibody treatment and a placebo is in development.

Daiana says it is fantastic to be involved in the AGILE trial.

“I know that I am just a little part of this huge mechanism, but I’m very happy to be part of this research. And gaining more knowledge of these monoclonal antibodies is not just about COVID, it will be helpful for future trials in future diseases that we may be struggling with.”

Creating a legacy for future generations

Ines Rodrigues leads the research nursing team at the NIHR Southampton CRF.

“When COVID came along in March 2020, it changed pretty much everything we were doing in terms of research,” she says. “We started doing a lot of the vaccine trials, which was a huge team effort. When AGILE started almost a year into the pandemic, it was exciting that the NIHR Southampton CRF was one of the sites doing the trial. Daiana was pretty new with us, so it was amazing the way she took on the study and ran it.

“I am so proud of my team and all the work we do together. When the first paper came out saying the Oxford vaccine was effective and was going to start being administered, we felt that we had done something special and were part of history – one day I can tell my grandchildren or great-grandchildren that I was part of that. And it’s the same with AGILE. We are part of this amazing research.”

And it’s a feeling echoed by Daiana:

“I think as nurses, we have a duty to deliver the public our best and deliver it with dignity and with hope. It’s more than just giving medication or treating an illness. It’s about how we can respond to a critical situation like the pandemic and hopefully bring about the new treatments that will keep people safe in the future.”

Daiana shared her experiences as part of the Being part of the AGILE trial case study from the Southampton Clinical Trials Unit.