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Tackling the COVID-19 Pandemic – Why Collaboration and Communication Are Crucial

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Technology Networks recently had the pleasure of speaking with Matthew Badham, Ph.D, Director of Scientific Communications at Research-Aid Networks (RAN) to learn more about how the organization is “bridging the gap”  between all forms of research and the humanitarian aid sector. In this interview we focus on RAN's activities in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Badham highlights the importance of collaboration and communication in these unprecedented times, discusses what we currently know about the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and elaborates on the analysis RAN has been conducting. 

Laura Lansdowne (LL): For our readers who may not be familiar with Research-Aid Networks, can you tell us a little more about the organization and your overall mission?

Matthew Badham (MB):
Research-Aid Networks (RAN) works to provide an effective means to “bridge the gap” which exists between all forms of research and the humanitarian aid sector. We started as laboratory researchers in virology, and are now using our skills developed in both research and communication to bring the latest scientific developments to the fore for those delivering aid, so that this is done effectively and efficiently. We also want to communicate the same knowledge to the public and back to the larger scientific community. So really, RAN endeavors to be the go-between which is often lacking in the research-aid chain. This is especially pertinent right now – there is a lot of confusion in the data and information surrounding the coronavirus, and we want to ensure that the facts are available to all, in the most accessible and usable way possible.

LL: Can you elaborate on Research-Aid Networks’ activities in relation to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

At the moment, we are primarily working on digesting and communicating the incredible amount of scientific literature being published surrounding COVID-19 and its causative virus, SARS-CoV-2. It’s also vital that we keep our finger on the pulse of the media’s and public’s interpretation of events, especially regarding “over-interpretation” of facts and figures – and of course the ever present “fake news”.

We are very open about being an easily contactable organization throughout the pandemic and beyond, we are encouraging researchers, humanitarians, politicians, the public – anyone – to get in touch with us with questions about COVID-19. If we can’t answer your question ourselves, we will find the person who can.

In our capacity as a networking organization, we are using our links across the globe to piece together differing opinions, data, and organizations, from research institutions and humanitarian groups to facilitate the most effective collaborative approaches for tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

LL: Can you touch on the importance of collaboration at this time?

Without collaboration and cooperation, we will not be able to control the pandemic. Thankfully, we can see this already happening with things like community 3D printing of face visors, cross-border sharing of epidemiological data, and scientific journals allowing free access to publications relating to coronavirus. We hope that this collaborative effort will extend to laboratory-based scientific research – especially in regards to vaccine development. Producing the number of vaccine doses needed to effectively immunize the population will require the combined efforts of many different organizations from many different fields. On a global level, vaccine distribution will require collaboration between governments, relaxing competition laws (and possibly legislating to require collaboration) pertaining to the development and production of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.

LL: What are some of the implications of COVID-19?

Undoubtedly COVID-19 will shape the years and decades to come, regarding health, the economy, and international relations. Right now, we are seeing developments that were hard to imagine six months ago. Nations in “lockdown”, political name calling and finger pointing, shortages of personal protective equipment, these all have serious implications locally, nationally, internationally. Of course, the main thing to remember is that this disease is causing immense amounts of suffering to those seriously affected. People are losing loved ones to a disease we still know so little about. We do have to also take in to account the long-term economic impact of national lockdowns, and move towards a concerted and multi-faceted approach to easing them, certainly before June. Job losses, mental health crises deepening, domestic violence, loneliness, social damage – these are vitally important considerations in analyzing the costs versus benefits of continuing lockdowns. It is important that all restrictions are not lifted at once, and that the “peaks” in case counts have been passed before relaxations occur. We already know we are near the peak here in the United Kingdom, and passed in Italy and Spain.

Often overlooked in analyzing our own health systems are those of developing nations. The pandemic could be especially serious in such countries with high population densities in their urban centers. Developing countries tend to suffer from a lack of available healthcare, ICU beds, ventilators – all the necessities required to treat the most serious COVID-19 cases. Coupled with things like infrastructure issues, less access to the relevant information and warnings regarding the virus, and absences of social safety nets when jobs are lost, implications in these situations could be severe.

LL: From the analysis you have been doing are there any key findings you could highlight?

There have been continuing failings in pubic communications and in preventative measures during the pandemic response. Official messages change frequently and have often been conflicting. In addition, we have delayed in taking action, from scaling up testing to preparing hospitals and PPE to implementing physical distancing measures. Because of this, there has been a reduced public acceptance of the response and a large amount of misinformation has circulated. In considering an exit strategy from the lockdown, we need to ensure there is a clear and consistent message that gives the public the knowledge and confidence needed to face the coming, likely difficult, months. We need to be taking these actions now, in advance, preparing to increase testing considerably and support the hospital infrastructure over the coming months. We need to be unified and all working together.

LL: What do we currently know about the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and what is it about this virus that has enabled the disease to spread so rapidly?

We know quite a lot about the virus on the microbiological and genetic scales already. Rapid nucleic acid sequencing has allowed us to analyze the RNA genome of SARS-CoV-2, and build up a picture of its genetic origins. Surveillance of the virus in different geographical regions and in different case outcomes is allowing us to see any changes that may be occurring in the genetic makeup of the virus. On a side note, a lot of people point to sensationalized articles reporting on potential mutations turning SARS-CoV-2 in to a “super killer”. One thing we do know is that the chances of this are slim. SARS-CoV-2 carries with it an enzyme which it uses to replicate its RNA. This enzyme has what is called proof-reading activity – that is, after it has copied its RNA, it reads it back to itself to check for errors. In viruses which do not proof-read, then yes, a significant change (mutation) in the genetic code can cause the virus to become more dangerous. With proof-reading like in SARS-CoV-2, the chances of this happening are much smaller, with any mutations likely having little significance to the overall virulence. In fact, over time, most viruses only change to evade the immune system through gradual genetic changes.

The methods to isolate viruses from infected patients are long established, and the methodology to study them is sound and replicable. The scientific community is very well positioned to continue research in to SARS-CoV-2, building on the incredible amount of data already generated since the start of 2020.

The rapid spread of the virus could be down to a number of things. Most notably, the population is completely antigenically naïve to SARS-CoV-2. This means that we have no immunity (whether that is on a personal level, or as a wider community) to the virus, unlike we would to say, the seasonal flu. Additionally, the virus is capable of being spread before people appear symptomatic, with high efficiency. This led to early containment efforts being less effective, and may hamper future control of any secondary outbreaks after lockdowns are relaxed.

Molecularly, the spike protein which the virus possesses on its surface to enable it to attach to host cells, contains a region which can be acted upon by an enzyme called furin. Furin “cleaves” the spike protein and allows more efficient entry into human cells. Furthermore, furin is found in high concentrations on the surface of lung tissue, a possible cause of the high virulence of SARS-CoV-2.

Matthew Badham was speaking with Laura Elizabeth Lansdowne, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks.