News / 16 September 2020

How have EMBL and EMBL-EBI helped drive the response to COVID-19 across EMBL’s member states?

The EMBL response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been tremendous; it’s inspiring to see the appetite and energy with which the EMBL community rose to the challenge. As a leading fundamental research institution in the life sciences, EMBL refocused much of its expertise and resources to help tackle the pandemic.

Our response covers an impressive range of projects, which all our member states, Australia included, can benefit from. For example, EMBL-EBI provided the technical core for the COVID-19 Data Portal, a European project that enables researchers, clinicians and public health professionals to share and analyse biomolecular data. Other recent EMBL milestones include research into the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, and the development of a microscopy-based assay for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in human sera.

Across EMBL, we are working on cutting-edge research and services to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, and we would be happy if colleagues from Australia can get involved and benefit from them - EMBL is part of Australia, and please use us. This pandemic is a struggle between humanity and this virus, and it is only by working together that we will prevail. We are doing this in close collaboration with our Member States and the international scientific community because together we are much, much stronger.

What were the surprises, the successes, the failures?

One success was keeping certain core services running through the lockdown. For example, EMBL-EBI’s data resources continued to function despite all 800 staff moving to remote working virtually overnight, and despite the lockdown being imposed in the middle of a major data centre move. The fact that we managed to keep the data flowing, despite all odds, was impressive.

Similarly, across the EMBL sites we saw a genuine desire from staff to help and to get involved in projects targeting the pandemic. Much of the COVID research, such as the infection cycle of SARS-CoV-2 by electron tomograms or the antibody assay research, was done shortly after the peak of the epidemic in Europe.

Has EMBL's contribution helped bridge the gap between hardcore science, which can be esoteric, and the mainstream understanding of infectious disease by the general public?

EMBL helps bridge the gap between disciplines; it brings together experts from all kinds of fields, from biology to genetics, clinicians, engineers, pharmacists and more, to make sense of basic biology and how our world works. Alongside this, there is also a strong element of making biology interesting, exciting and accessible for the general public. At some level, everyone is curious about our world, it’s just a matter of tapping into whatever they resonate with.

Could you explain your involvement and motivation to participate in the Oxford University coronavirus vaccine trial?

Volunteers for clinical trials are invaluable. They can really help speed up the process of finding treatment or a vaccine, and in the long run, this saves lives. Of course, there are always risks, but we take comfort in the fact that research trials and studies are strictly regulated for ethics and safety. Like many other volunteers, I got involved in a vaccine trial because I wanted to help however I could.

Getting the vaccine was an interesting experience. In an early Phase II/III trial, the list of potential side effects includes virtually any side effect noticed with a vaccine (it is a long list!) and, from the Phase I study, they already knew that many participants would experience a 24-hour fever and pain. For me, I got a sore arm (felt like I had hit a wall heavily) for a while. Obviously, I still don’t know if I am on the actual SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine or a meningitis vaccine [the control vaccine], which was chosen to have similar effects in the first 24 hours. I test myself for the virus every week at home and have had follow up blood tests twice in the last two months.

Given the need to test safety & efficacy, when do you think we could realistically see a vaccine?

I’m in awe of how quickly the different vaccine trials are moving. To have vaccines in Phase III within six months of the virus sequence first being published is unheard of. Still, we have to make sure all the safety precautions are taken and that we don’t trade speed for safety or effectiveness. In fact, the trial I am on has just been paused because of a single severe adverse event to be investigated. Realistically, I think we will have to navigate this [European] autumn and winter without a vaccine. Hopefully, with a combination of shared expertise, international coordination and a fair share of good fortune, we may see a vaccine next year, but there are no guarantees at this stage.

There has been public discussion of many challenges related to the development of an effective vaccine (including whether local infection rates are sufficient to test efficacy of vaccine during the observation time of trial, safety and efficacy of vaccine in fast-paced timeline, whether people would refuse a Covid-19 vaccine, etc). What do you see as the greatest challenge to overcome?

Where to start? There are scientific challenges, and then there are the logistical and political challenges as well. Producing and distributing millions, even billions, of doses for a global population will most likely be one of the biggest challenges in pharmaceutical history.

It is important to realise we have to have a plan to get us through the winter in Europe (summer in Australia) without a vaccine.

What lessons could Australia learn from the UK/European experience in terms of controlling infection rates, if anything?

First off, I think broadly Australia has navigated the crisis well - of course, the situation in Victoria some months ago was definitely not ideal but one has to realise this is a complex situation in every country.

"The lessons we have learned during these last months are global. We’ve learned them together and at a high cost. Test and trace is crucial. Lockdown measures work. Social distancing and hygiene measures make a difference. And also, we all have a part to play and we’re in this together. This shouldn’t be a race between countries. This is very much a ‘human versus virus’ race and international scientific organisations like EMBL are here to do exactly this - help countries pool resources, expertise and talent to help overcome challenges, such as the one we’re all facing today."

Do you have any insight into the role of genetics in whether some people are more likely than others to be infected with the virus or to develop severe symptoms?

The COVID-19 Host Genetics consortium is coordinating the international investigations of host genetics in an open and transparent manner, with datasets from around the world contributing to this. There is one established hit on Chromosome 3, near a cytokine cluster. Interestingly, this haplotype looks like a Neanderthal haplotype via the interbreeding of Neanderthals and humans some 50,000 years ago, which have gone to higher frequency in South Asian groups (Bangladesh, Indian and Pakistani groups and heritage). This area is developing fast and it is very likely that we will find other genetic components.

I should stress that despite this genetic finding, we can be relatively confident that the enrichment of COVID-19 hospitalisations and death in minority groups, such as “Black and Minority Ethnic groups” (UK labelling) or “African American and Hispanic groups” (US labelling) or “Turkish heritage” (German descriptions) is predominantly not due to genetics. This is because these groups are very genetically diverse and yet the increase in risk is far smoother between the sub-groups of the people who self-identify with these labels. It most likely that combinations of socio-economic factors, including occupation, housing density and other factors, are the main driver. A number of research groups are focusing on this topic.

The untangling of the commonplace eliding of self-identified ethnic group labels such as “African American” or “White European” or “Deutsch-Turken” (German-Turk in Germany) with genetics is another passion of mine. The group labels we have are surprisingly useless when thinking about genetics, but for many people these two concepts are aligned. But this is for a different interview strand...

Image credit: Carrie Tang