Universities led CoViD-19 related research and response; higher investment in basic and clinical research could yield more for society

02-11-21 USAf 0 comment

Coming at the topic from a researcher’s perspective, Professor Lynn Morris (left) is a virologist by training and explores the fascinating interplay between research and CoViD-19. She is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation at the University of the Witwatersrand. She said in March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) set up a global team to work on this unknown virus dubbed CoViD-19. This meant that multiple areas needed to be researched. What were the origins of the virus, how was it transmitted and diagnosed, its impact on epidemiological studies, how was it best managed clinically, infection prevention and control, the development of vaccines and lastly, but importantly, what was all of this impact on ethics and social science.

A study commissioned by the WHO in 2021 looked at the global contribution that different kinds of institutions made in dealing with these many elements. It is consoling to note that universities led the way (23% of all research) globally with WHO and affiliated institutions at 20%. At 15%, industry and the private sector joined in ways that have never been seen before. The research projects were dominated by the USA with Africa languishing behind as is too often the case.

Research coming out of UCT in September last year tried to understand what CoViD-19 means for Africa. As expected, it found that Africa has a limited capacity for testing and contact tracing; that it has a high burden of co-infections like TB and HIV which may exacerbate the spread; that we have poor health-care system that could not deal with the upsurge; there was a lack of pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity and that the generally weak economies were never going to be able to handle prolonged lockdowns without severely incapacitating the economy.

The university as a research microcosm

Quoting research coming out of Nigeria, Professor Morris notes that the university, as a knowledge generator, could play a crucial role in dealing with the multiple requirements of CoViD-19 simply because it does so many different things. As we saw in South Africa, many leading academics played important roles in advising government policy and existing university funders were able to re-purpose funds to address CoViD-19 issues. In this sense, CoViD-19 brought universities around the world to life in an unprecedented way. Moreover, CoViD-19 has changed the way that we do science:

  • Research is informing policy in real-time.
  • >180,000 CoViD-19 publications on PubMed.
  • There is now greater public engagement in science.
  • Unpublished data is shared on Twitter.
  • Open science and open data initiatives are growing.
  • Projects and funding are catalogued and tracked.
  • Huge investment in vaccine science (Operation Warp Speed provided $18 billion).
  • There is a much closer collaboration with industry.

Regarding the genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2, there have also been fast tracked developments. It is now possible to track the spread of viral variants around the world and to measure the rate of viral evolution and assess therapeutic effectiveness. The GISAID database is a data sharing repository established for influenza and now has over 3 million sequences. It has also meant the rapid exchange and analysis of sequence data for global public health benefit.

Professor Morris points to the important work carried out by the Network for genomic surveillance (led by Professor Tulio de Oliveira) which involves all the public health labs across the country and has managed to link all the specialised universities in the country to pool their efforts on CoViD-19 related research. Their sequencing has managed to keep us abreast of variants of concern as and when they appear and effectively act as an early warning system for the country as a whole. This network was also behind the discovery that the Beta variant was less efficacious with the use of Astra Zeneca, thus stopping it being used (and wasted) in the South African context.

In summary, it is remarkable how research has delivered CoViD vaccines in record time. Literally it is a triumph of science. In addition, existing platforms and networks were rapidly pivoted and significant funding for new initiatives made available. Universities have played a critical role in the CoViD-19 response and this has highlighted the importance of investment in basic and clinical research. Likewise, there is a need to invest in local manufacturing (reagents and vaccines) because what is clear is that new research challenges will continue to emerge.

The Research and Innovation Strategy Group which led the discussions on Research Impact, is one of USAf’s strategy groups whose function is to advise the USAf Board on research and innovation matters in the sector. In addition to Research Impact, the RISG dedicated two other sessions of the 2nd Higher Education Conference to deliberate on Research Integrity and the Engaged University and Research Collaborations (Domestically and Internationally). This choice of sub-themes was inspired by the RISG’s current priority projects which extend to promoting open science and open access; building platforms for collaboration across the sector and internationally; transformation and capacity development; funding for postgraduate studies and research; and research infrastructure – especially in the current context.

Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.