Interview with Calum Semple

The expert in outbreak medicine discusses overcoming early academic challenges, the UK government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and how a chance meeting over bagpipes changed his life

January 19, 2023
Source: University of Liverpool

Calum Semple is professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, and consultant respiratory paediatrician at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. He was a member of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies during the Covid-19 pandemic, and is part of the UK-wide ISARIC4C research group, which responds to emerging public health threats.

Where and when were you born?
I was born, like most Glaswegians, at “The Rottenrow”, the nickname for the Princess Royal Maternity Hospital, in 1968. I grew up in Pollokshields on the Southside of the city.

How has this shaped who you are?
I was perhaps slow to learn that the Glasgow of my childhood was socially divided on sectarian boundaries and that division was associated with limited opportunities, economic stress, and health inequality for many people. Our family was relatively privileged but growing up in Glasgow made me sensitive to poverty and the need to communicate clearly with people across society without causing offence.

Reflecting on the UK’s response to Covid-19 over the past three years, can you identify a time when you were most worried?
My group (ISARIC4C) collated the hospital admissions, resource use and outcomes for cases of Covid-19 in the UK and shared dynamic analysis with policymakers. In March 2020 we were among the first people to realise the magnitude of impact that the pandemic was having on our healthcare system and was likely to have upon society if the outbreak in the UK were allowed to progress unchecked. The second was in April 2020 and in subsequent waves when we reported on the consequential outbreak of hospital-acquired Covid-19 and how this spilled back into the community, amplifying the outbreak.

You were recognised by the Faculty of Public Health this year, and were previously awarded an OBE for services to the Covid-19 response – how much does such public acknowledgement of your work mean?
I am not the only member of our group who has been honoured, though many more should be. Much of ISARIC’s work was done in preparation for just such an event as the Covid-19 pandemic, but this work started in 2012. It involved many people working on protocols and processes pro bono and travelling at their own expense to planning meetings. At several annual reviews, we were told we were wasting time preparing to do urgent public health research for a future outbreak. The public acknowledgement of our work provides some personal vindication for that commitment.

Do you think the coronavirus pandemic changed anything about how the public responds to more recent threats, such as monkeypox or strep A?
I think it may be too early to tell. I think much of the public is exhausted with Covid-19 information and misinformation. I was surprised to see how low the uptake of annual influenza vaccination has been in younger people, pregnant women and middle-aged people with risk factors. Uptake is particularly poor in deprived areas. Yet I also perceive an improved interest in science and healthcare from younger people hungry for more information or how they can contribute to these roles in society.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
That natural infection is better for us than vaccination. The layers of logic failure in this position would take another article. What I think is really needed is for government to adequately fund their public health agencies to invest in professional advertising and social influence for health promotion using the same external expertise and skills that the fast food, alcohol and tobacco industries have used to promote their unhealthy products.

Can you tell us about one decision of yours that took your life down a different path?
A chance meeting at a Burns Night in 1987 with another bagpiper, Richard Tedder, who kept electron photomicrographs in his bagpipe case. He asked me what I thought they were showing and when I identified the coffin-shaped virus that was causing Aids he told me I should take some time out of my medical school studies to work in his laboratory. He became my PhD supervisor, mentor, collaborator and a good friend.

Have you had a ‘eureka’ moment?
I was encouraged by my PhD supervisors Richard Tedder and Clive Loveday to explore the relatively new method of using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to measure human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). My idea of using latex microparticles coated in antibody to pull HIV out of patients’ blood extracted about 10 times more virus than existing methods and removed the inhibitors that were poisoning the PCR. With this advantage we went on to develop a quantitative PCR method. We proved the relationship between levels of HIV-1 RNA in blood “viral load” and HIV disease status and then antiviral treatment. When I first presented our findings in Washington in 1991, I was accused of fabrication. Fortunately, a French researcher climbed on to the podium to state he had found the same association using a traditional viral cell culture method. Measuring viral load by quantitative PCR in body fluids and orifices is now routinely used for many viral infections, mostly to monitor response to treatments.

What’s your biggest regret?
I don’t do regret, but I recognise a few sliding doors moments, such as turning down a job offer from Anthony Fauci in 1991.

What keeps you awake at night?
I usually sleep well, but I did lose sleep when I recognised the pandemic potential of the Sars-CoV-2 outbreak.

What one thing would improve your working week?
An artificial intelligence email filter that works for me against spammers and predatory journals.

What do you do for fun?
I love playing my Great Highland bagpipes and my Christmas present was a set of Border pipes which I am trying to master. I enjoy musical theatre. For exercise, it’s dog walking and target shooting. Target shooting requires prior preparation of the equipment, then total calm of mind and body at the firing point – pulling the trigger when focused on the target is the easy bit.


1986-89 BSc, Middlesex Hospital Medical School
1989-92 PhD in clinical virology, UCL
1992-95 Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery, University of Oxford
1995-99 adult medicine and surgery, then general training in paediatrics, Oxford Deanery
1999-2006 training in respiratory paediatrics, Merseyside Deanery
2006-17 senior clinical lecturer in child health, University of Liverpool; consultant in paediatric respiratory medicine, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
2012- executive, International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium (ISARIC)
2017- professor of child health and outbreak medicine, Liverpool, honorary consultant in paediatric respiratory medicine, Alder Hey
2020-22 Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies coronavirus response
2020 OBE for services to the Covid-19 response
2022 distinguished fellowship of the Faculty of Public Health


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