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Posted on 11 March 2021 by Daniela Thiel

Lindau Scientists’ Survey: Shift in Research Focus During First Year of the Pandemic

In March 2020 the COVID-19 outbreak was declared as pandemic. Photo/Credit: RomeoLu/iStock

As one year has passed since the World Health Organisation classified SARS-CoV-2 as a pandemic, physical distance, wearing masks, avoiding contact and hygienic concepts have influenced a large part of our daily lives. Few events changed the lives of so many people around the globe in such a short time as the coronavirus, albeit in different ways depending on the region and personal circumstances. The vaccines developed over the past year are supposed to bring this state of emergency to an end. The fact that it was made available in a comparatively short period of time was achieved as many scientists have not only adapted their professional and private lives to corona conditions, but have also placed their scientific interest on the topic. Increasing knowledge about the novel coronavirus, and the development of vaccines and the optimisation of vaccine production methods are the result of all the research of a growing numer of scientists who have focused on this topic.

Reorientation Throughout the Disciplines

Many scientists in the Lindau Alumni Network also had to concentrate on a different research focus or temporarily switch because of the corona pandemic. This applies to all disciplines, as a survey conducted in our community shows. One example of this shift is Jana Huisman, who will participate in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2021. She was already a member of a group concerned with the spread of infectious diseases, particularly viruses, even before the Corona outbreak. The Dutch biologist, who is currently working at ETH Zurich, actually focused on the increasing resistance to antibiotics. That has changed a lot recently: “I now work exclusively on COVID-related projects. Our work on estimating the effective reproductive number has even made it temporarily into law in Switzerland.”

Understanding the New Virus

At a fairly early stage of the pandemic, Corona played a role for Sreejith Rajasekharan, 2014 Lindau Alumnus: “My research was on Flavivirus-host interaction before COVID-19. With the advent of the pandemic in Italy last March, my research focus was temporarily shifted from Flaviviruses to SARS-CoV-2.” He was member of the group that characterised the genome of SARS-CoV-2 in Italy last spring. In the meantime, he moved from the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Trieste to the Heinrich Pette Institute in Hamburg. “Now I am back studying Flaviviruses. The SARS-CoV-2 related work that I was part of in the previous lab still continues with updated objectives.”

Researchers had to switch their focus due to the pandemic. Photo/Credit: sanjeri/iStock

Drug Hunting for Coronavirus

One example of scientists in the field of Medicine who have switched from researching a particular disease to working on the new virus is Dr Hira Khalid. The 2017 Lindau Alumna used her knowledge in anticancer and anti-enzymatic studies at Forman Christian College University in Lahore to search for drugs that can be used in case of corona infections. “We shifted to drug hunting for Coronavirus. We screened our synthetic compounds to repurpose as potential compounds as drug contenders of this virus.”

Rafael Álvarez González, working for Agora Scientific Services in the USA and a Lindau Alumnus for 35 years, was also able to make important contributions to research on the coronavirus, building on many years of experience with viruses: “Given that all viruses, regardless of whether they are RNA or DNA viruses, all codify for specific gene (protein) expression, more than 50 percent of my research has been related to Virology. Urgent work has focused on addressing the connection of protein and nucleic acid function to PASC – Post-Acute Sequalae of SARS-CoV-2 Infection.”

Wessam Saaed Abdrabo, who had worked extensively on computational biology and bioinformatics specially computer aided drug design in 2016 after the Zika virus outbreak, changed her working method through Corona. “Since the COVID-19 pandemic my research interests got some modifications. After the lockdown I realised that I have to do more computational work, combining medicinal and computational Chemistry with more data analysis as this will help reduce time required for wet lab experiments and also should help getting better results.” The 2017 Lindau Alumna would like to continue the approach of combining both at Benha University: “I will work to explore more things that can help to achieve the goal of beating drug resistant diseases and help finding drugs for emerging diseases.”

No-COVID-Surfaces

Jiří Kratochvíl approached the topic through the eyes of a physicist. The 2019 Lindau Alumnus from the University of South Bohemia had already dealt with research and development of nanostructured surfaces for medical applications, among others with antibacterial surfaces. “Now I have a team and we are developing the surfaces which inactivate the virus as fast as possible. The application’s focus is the frequently touched surfaces, filters for ventilation systems and respirators.” Despite all the tasks that were caused by the pandemic – “the work at my university was doubled, I needed to prepare online lectures on Solid State Physics, I ran the physical practice alone, and mainly ran my COVID-related project” – Jiří Kratochvíl can draw a positive balance for the past year. He won the “Ceska Hlava” award which is offered by the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic and sometimes referred to as the “Czech Nobel Prize for Science, Research and Innovation” in the doctorandus category in November 2020.

An Economic Perspective

Sebastian Wichert looks at the economic consequences of the crisis. The trained health economist is now working on how the pandemic and its prevention measures affected household finances, especially income and spending patterns in several European countries. In 2022 he will be able to exchange ideas with other young economists on this topic at the 7th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences – hopefully from a post-pandemic perspective.

Next Episode: Home Office Instead of Lab

So far for an exciting insight into the impact on the work of scientists from the Lindau Alumni Network. As the statements show, many of the nearly 140 scientists who participated in the survey have changed their thematic focus.

We publish more articles about the results on the blog. A next contribution will provide answers to the question of how measures such as contact and mobility restrictions as well as keeping distance affect everyday research regardless of the research topic. We have already received many interesting statements on this aspect as well.

Daniela Thiel

Editor and part of the communication team of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.