Anna-Lena Spetz is leading a project awarded just over 30 million SEK over two years to develop antiviral treatment of the new coronavirus. The money comes from a call issued by the EU Commission in January.
“Normally, it would take three months to write this type of application. This time, we did it in ten days and I worked almost around the clock. I coped, because I had time to become scared of the possible development and I thought that we perhaps have something that could be important,” says Anna-Lena Spetz, Professor of Immunology at Stockholm University.
The project includes research teams from Germany, Denmark and France. In these countries, laboratories that do not work with the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) have closed. More persons than expected are therefore engaging in the project, as they cannot work on their ordinary projects.
Faster than planned
“Our work is advancing much faster than planned. Some things that we thought would take a year are already done,” she says.
The goal of fast results means that the research process in the project has partly been redesigned, according to Anna-Lena Spetz. She describes the work as more pragmatic.
“Now when we are testing the medicine candidates, we cannot map exactly how they function in a test tube before going on to test on animals. We can’t do as much surrounding research, but must put money into using more animals instead.”
She says that they are therefore risking not being able to publish the results in really prominent journals, but that they can go back and do more extensive studies later.
Sharing data and results
On 30 January this year, the World Health Organization, WHO, declared a global emergency due to the outbreak of the new coronavirus. In addition to calling for faster development of vaccines, treatments and diagnostics, WHO also encouraged the countries of the world to share data, knowledge and experience with WHO and the world.
The next day, the British research funding body Wellcome Trust published a request to researchers, journals and funding bodies to share data and research results of importance to the outbreak quickly and openly. A number of actors have signed the declaration, including journals and publishers such as Springer Nature, Science Journals, Elsevier and PNAS, and research funding bodies such as the National Institutes of Health, the EU Commission, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Swedish Research Council.
The need for rapid knowledge increase has led to many new initiatives and collaborations. For example, WHO has initiated an international collaboration programme for researchers working on vaccine against COVID-19. The project Folding@home is another example. It asks private individuals to connect their computers to a network to contribute computing capacity for studies of the proteins of the virus.
In January, researchers from Shanghai published the first sequencing of the genome of the virus. The sequencing was published on the open-access website virological.org and in the open-access sequencing database Genbank. Several virus genomes are now accessible on open-access databases such as GISAID and China National Genomics Data Centre.
Published before they are reviewed
A large amount of research results relating to the new coronavirus are also available quickly and openly in the form of ‘preprints’. These are scientific works published on the internet before they have been peer reviewed. The phenomenon is common in fields such as physics, but is also increasing in biology and medicine (read more in Chasing quick results).
The large amount of studies now being published entails a challenge in terms of having time to critically review everything that is published, according to Anna-Lena Spetz.
“At the same time, it is so important that we share information. We can’t sit in our ivory towers, but have to be altruistic. The wave of openness that is moving through the research world now is fantastic to see.”
Matti Sällberg, Professor of Biomedical Analysis at Karolinska Institutet, is also leading one of the projects awarded funding in the EU’s call for research into the new coronavirus. The project focuses on vaccine development, and shares data openly as a point of principle, so that others can use them.
“We are planning to publish most of what we do on our website, both successes and failures, as soon as we have looked at the data. If people think we are idiots, then they can do so; the important thing is that they don’t make the same mistakes.”
The first item will be the team’s test to show antibodies in persons who have had COVID-19. Work on the test started early in January, says Matti Sällberg, when the researchers from Shanghai openly published the genome of the virus.
Benefit from each other’s knowledge
Sharing data directly can lead it to not being cited, he establishes, but adds that this is uninteresting at this stage.
“The important thing is that we move forward as quickly as possible. Then we want to benefit from other people’s knowledge, and let others benefit from ours.”
The EU grant makes it possible to include more people in the project, which leads to a mustering of strength. But when it comes to vaccine development, research follows a strictly laid-down path, with limited opportunities to do things very much faster.
“A mouse doesn’t start to form antibodies any quicker just because we’re in a hurry. But we do as much as possible in parallel: we work in several laboratories simultaneously, with steps that complement each other. That can possibly hurry things up a bit.”
He establishes that the time pressure and the seriousness of the situation is sure to tempt some to take unsuitable shortcuts, but sees this as an untenable strategy.
“When this is all over, we have to take responsibility for how we have done things. For this reason, it is important that we maintain high ethical standards, even if things are urgent,” says Matti Sällberg.