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A silver lining for research at a time of pandemic

Published online 6 April 2020

Scientists are using time away from their labs to dig deeply into their data.

Sedeer el-Showk

Ryan Mcvay/ Getty Images
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Europe, governments in the Middle East quickly responded to prevent the disease from spreading in their countries. As part of this effort, many placed restrictions on non-essential businesses, services and travel. For universities, this meant switching teaching to tele-learning platforms and limiting laboratory access. Scientists, in turn, have found ways to adapt and keep research going, at least for the time being.

In Qatar, investigators at Sidra Medicine, a healthcare and research facility, are following national guidelines by working from home where possible and limiting non-essential lab work. “Most teams come in to run critical experiments on a rotational schedule to comply with social distancing principles,” says Khalid Fakhro, Sidra’s acting chief of research and director of precision medicine.

Nevertheless, Fakhro says Qatar’s early investment in biomedical sciences is now paying off, with scientists and clinicians teaming up across institutions to tackle the pandemic on different levels, such as studying virus-host genomic interactions, creating patient bio-repositories, setting up clinical trials, and connecting with global consortia.

He adds that shifting patient visits to telemedicine has reduced the number of patients coming in for existing studies, which may delay projects planned for this year. However, his team has plenty of data to analyse from patients enrolled in studies over the past year. Without new data coming in, researchers have to work on what they already have. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this actually turns out to be a very productive year in terms of publication activity,” says Fakhro.

Fahad Al Senafi, a physical oceanographer at Kuwait University, says he is also using the time to analyse data. He says there is some benefit in researchers being forced to delve into their data rather than starting new projects, despite the slowdown in research output. “It gives people the opportunity to squeeze their data a bit more and look at things from a different perspective. You have to get a bit more creative and think outside the box, but a lot of good science could come out of this.”

Other researchers at the university, such as synthetic chemist, Talal Alazemi, have found their lab work abruptly brought to a halt and are using this time to write papers.

In Saudi Arabia, bioscientist Mo Li, who leads the Stem Cell and Regeneration Laboratory at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), brought some of his projects to a premature halt because of the new regulations. But he says they were fortunate to have collected large datasets before their lab went into hibernation, and will keep busy analysing them for the time being. “It will become more challenging to maintain our output if restrictions continue for an extended period,” he says.

In the UAE, New York University Abu Dhabi biophysicist, Mazin Magzoub, has come up with a time-sharing approach to ensure that work can continue. “The idea is to make sure we don't have any more than two people in the lab at once, and it’s only really for people whose work is absolutely critical,” he explains. His team is also taking advantage of this time to analyse and write up results and to do background reading for research.

Magzoub is also coordinating with his team to postpone experimental work while bringing forward computational work. “I’m not going to say there’s no delay. We’re not working at our normal speed, which is an unfortunate consequence but is unavoidable,” he says. “We’re compromising and trying to make the best of the situation. Ensuring everyone’s safety is the paramount concern.”

Carlos Duarte, a professor of marine science at KAUST, expects the restrictions to have very little impact on his team’s productivity unless they are extended for longer than several months. “We have a lot of work in bioinformatics, modelling, and computational biology that’s all continuing at full speed because it’s not dependent on laboratory operations,” he says. Master’s students in his group are being given alternative research projects that they can carry out under the current circumstances, and the team’s work plans will be revised every few weeks to keep pace with the situation.

Duarte’s team is also joining the global effort to learn more about COVID-19 and the virus behind it, using their genomics platform to analyse beta coronaviruses, and their spatial modelling expertise to help understand the epidemiology. “We’re using our skills to respond to this crisis, and I think everybody across campus is also contributing,” he says. “KAUST is an international university with people from 112 countries. We all have family and friends elsewhere in the world, and we want to make a difference in this global struggle.” 

But Duarte has concerns. “Global attention is focused on just one thing now,” he says, meaning that a lot of valuable research “is going to go under the radar. A lot of science that would have influenced policymaking and decision-making is going to be missed.”

Fakhro says scientists in Qatar also see working on COVID-19 as a priority. At Sidra, expertise in single-cell RNA sequencing and high-throughput genomics have been combined to develop an innovative testing strategy for the virus. “As an academic medical centre, Sidra’s genomics research core is working closely with counterparts in clinical pathology to develop testing solutions that are as sensitive as clinically approved standard tests, while offering increased throughput and faster results,” he says. 

“While the current crisis imposes the need to stay safe and maintain distance, never in the history of humanity have we felt closer to each other than this time, as we come together as a global scientific community to face this challenge head-on,” says Fakhro.