Rarely in recent memory has the world faced such an immediate and widespread global threat as complex as COVID-19. In its face, a select few have risen to the occasion, none more cherished and admired perhaps than the health care workers staffing the front lines. But standing close behind them in the trenches are the scientists and researchers who are among the very few who truly understand the scope of our evolutionary battle with the virus. Since the start of the pandemic, our scientists have acted with unprecedented speed and coordinated action to deliver us an armamentarium of medical weaponry to confront this global threat.
For someone who has spent a lifetime in science, someone who understands the pressures and constraints faced each day in every lab, it has been phenomenal to witness the transformation that has taken place within the scientific community. It is not just the speed and focus with which the scientific community responded, nor simply the use of new technologies to draw out new discoveries, but rather the singular willingness of scientists, all over the world, to share new ideas and data immediately and transparently, in some cases well before the idea or the research is fully formed.
Within weeks of the first case of COVID being reported, Chinese researchers had identified the virus they suspected of causing the disease and had decoded an initial genome sequence. It was a remarkable achievement in such a short amount of time, made more remarkable by the fact that the researchers published the sequence in an open discussion forum online, and encouraged a fellow researcher in Sydney, Australia, to share it via Twitter with the world.
During the first 24 hours after publication, an evolutionary biologist in Scotland had figured out the similarities between this virus and SARS-CoV-1 and, like the Chinese researchers, shared the findings immediately online. A researcher in the U.S. openly published the new virus’ phylogenetic tree. And another started reverse-engineering a live virus from the sequence, letting colleagues around the world know that the first steps towards developing an antibody test were already underway. At each moment, the goal was not acclaim or attention, but rather the possibility that openly sharing an early finding may influence the work of others and inch the world ever closer to a treatment or a cure.
Of all the arenas in life that COVID has upended, science is perhaps the field that has been transformed the most. The pandemic has created an entirely new research environment, one that is now structured for collaboration and communication above all else. This revolution was inspired by the initial transparency of those early researchers but has since been institutionalized by some of the most well-respected research institutes in the world today, including our very own biomedical nerve center in Boston.
Shortly after the virus emerged, Harvard Medical School pulled 20 Boston-area universities, medical schools and research institutes together to launch the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness (MassCPR). The initial goal was to formally join forces with researchers in China to answer the call to action to take down the emerging threat, with the hope that any lessons learned from this outbreak would enable a more rapid response to future emergencies.
This alone was a notable step. The scientific community in Boston typically works in relatively isolated fashion, with barriers built up between departments, disciplines and entire institutions. But with COVID-19 and MassCPR those floodgates between institutes upriver and down were quickly opened.
With a collaborative research grant from the Evergrande Group, MassCPR began funding dozens of new research projects, some of which have led to field-defining studies on the epidemiology, pathogenesis and immunopathology of COVID-19. Over the past year, MassCPR clinicians have written clinical management guidelines that have influenced patient care across the globe, and the consortium’s investigators have conceptualized, designed and developed the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine and spearheaded clinical trials for the Moderna one.
The dean of Harvard Medical School, George Daley, leads the effort, along with Arlene Sharpe, Bruce Walker and David Golan. As Daley describes it, “Our collective efforts over the last year have given us demonstrable proof that we are strongest when we work together across institutional boundaries, when we reach out across geographic and national borders. We are strongest when we transcend scientific silos and build bridges across disciplines. Cooperation to confront a common threat is what MassCPR represents, and the achievements speak for themselves.”
MassCPR’s immediate efforts are focused on the basic biology of SARS-CoV-2 and the pathogenesis of COVID-19—developing new diagnostic tools, vaccines and therapies. But while the researchers stay firmly focused on the now, they are also looking towards tomorrow. “We must refine our capacity to track the rise of new viral variants,” warns Daley. “We must refine our prevention strategies—an armamentarium of treatments—by developing new antiviral drugs, panviral therapies, and polivariant vaccines. And we must anticipate the post pandemic realities of COVID-19. A major goal of MassCPR 2.0 will be to define the scope of post-COVID-19 syndrome and understand the long-term effects of multiple organ systems. The knowledge will have relevance beyond this pandemic and, indeed, beyond this pathogen.”
Beyond MassCPR, other critical global partnerships have emerged over the course of the past year to bring recent scientific advancements on the virus to the masses, not the least of which is the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and its vaccines pillar, COVAX. The ACT Accelerator is a global philanthropic partnership—not a new agency or institution but rather a framework for collaboration launched by the WHO, the European Commission, France and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in April 2020.Original Source