“The collaborative spirit is extraordinary and unprecedented”

Just a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, synthetic biologist Imre Berger FRSB and colleagues finished work on synthetic vaccine platform intended for rapidly responding to infectious disease outbreaks. 

Can you describe what your role involved before the COVID-19 pandemic and how your focus has changed because of the pandemic?

I am a synthetic biologist at the University of Bristol. We have the BBSRC/EPSRC Bristol Synthetic Biology Research Centre, and the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology which opened last year and which I am fortunate to direct.

We were busy having great fun in the lab, building all sorts of different gadgets and sensors in before the COVID-19 crisis brought much of this to a standstill. But interestingly, just a few months ago, we published our work on a novel synthetic vaccine platform, the ADDomer – which we had designed to rapidly respond to infectious disease outbreaks. We could not have imagined that we would be putting our hearts where our mouth was, so soon.

What other COVID-19 related projects have you been involved with and what have they have achieved so far?

Bristol scientists of many walks of life reacted speedily to the outbreak. Adam Finn from the Bristol Children’s Vaccine Centre pulled together these diverse strands of activity forming Bristol UNCOVER, short for Bristol University COVID-19 Emergency Research group. A core team of volunteers in my laboratory is tasked within UNCOVER to use our eukaryotic expression facility for producing reagents required for assays being set up at Bristol.

These include protein components of the SARS-CoV-2, the human receptor protein the virus uses for cell entry, and others used for serological testing. We are also supplying our structural biologists, led by Christiane Schaffitzel, with mutant and variant forms of the viral proteins for cryo-electron microscopy.

Most importantly, we are working around the clock with Bristol biotech Imophoron to produce COVID-19 candidate vaccines based on our ADDomer platform, for preclinical tests.

What have you done differently owing to this being an urgent, emergency situation? Have you noticed a difference in the way teams across different fields and institutions are working?

The collaborative spirit at Bristol University and within the Bristol UNCOVER Group is extraordinary and in my view unprecedented. Coordinated by Adam Finn, we e-meet every morning for a briefing on the activities of by now over 40 senior researchers from all walks of life, including clinicians, biologists, chemists, epidemiologists, virologists, engineers but also administrators, lawyers and public health experts – to discuss the chores at hand and progress made.

The esprit-de-corps is fantastic. Multiple connections have been made, leading to rapid solutions to otherwise insuperable problems and new ideas are being generated and taken forward almost on a daily basis. Processes which would take weeks and months ordinarily are fast-tracked through university administration within days.

On all levels, people work incredibly hard to underpin efforts, keep operations going, orders out, deliveries in and distributed. The ingenuity and problem solving on all levels is incredibly impressive. It is a very serious health crisis that is causing all this, but nonetheless, these will be times we will all remember for the energy, drive and sense of purpose that prevailed and made things happen amid all this commotion.

Have you sought new funding or additional support for your work, and if so how easy was it to navigate the relevant channels to access this?

Bristol University’s Elizabeth Blackwell Institute (EBI) manages substantial funds for translational science from the MRC and the Wellcome Trust. Rachael Goobermann-Hill and her team from EBI immediately realized that new money was required to fuel the effort. Within days they set up a rolling COVID-19 rapid call for grants to underpin the activities, with minimal bureaucracy and red tape.

More than 20 projects are already funded, more to come, and a second, flanking confidence-in-concept call has now been opened. At the same time, Bristol University’s Research and Enterprise Development’s team around Jacqui Oakley are keenly reminding us of funding opportunities by the research councils, Wellcome and others, supporting numerous bids going in in parallel.

This is all highly professional and pro-active and I remain impressed by how everybody at all levels, support and research staff, administration, Heads of Schools, Deans, Pro-Vice Chancellors and the University Senior management, all united in rising to the occasion.

How are you communicating information from your work so that it can be utilised around the world?

While not as much on our agenda as it probably should be, we are surprisingly present in the news, on social media, in the printed press and even on TV, in spite of everybody being single-mindedly focused on driving forward their research. For instance, the ADDomer COVID-19 vaccine candidates developed in Bristol are already on the priority list of the WHO. The expertise we have in Bristol, notably on the clinical side, is highly sought after in the current situation. We all are trying our best to get the message out.

Can you talk us through some of the challenges of working during these strange times, for example the adaptations required to keep yourself and staff safe; trying to source in-demand equipment and reagents; or the effect on non-COVID research projects/departmental business?

The internal communication within the University was excellent throughout, with timely updates about the situation as it unfolded and clear guidelines how to adjust operations. My team is international, I myself am German, and we all keenly followed the developments around the globe, foreboding things to come in the UK.

It became obvious that a shutdown was imminent, and we prepared by transiting all non-COVID related research activities into a safe ‘hibernation’ state. Our ambition was to be ready to pick up our projects with minimal disruption once the laboratories and the University reopen.

In parallel, early on, we moved to home office activity wherever possible, and introduced strict social distancing. Without question the lockdown is disruptive and damaging to our research. We will rely heavily on the research councils, Wellcome, the ERC and all funders to be creative and flexible regarding contracts and grant extensions when the time comes. From what I hear I am entirely confident that the funders are fully aware and already moving into the right direction. We are all in this together.

How would you describe the bioscience sector’s response to the crisis and the interaction with public health bodies and Government? 

We were all taken by surprise by the outbreak, no question. We all have to acknowledge, across the board, that we were unprepared. The time will come for frank and serious debate, involving all stake holders and the general public, to identify oversight, indifference, mistakes and lack of funds – given that, as we now painfully realise, there are lives and livelihoods at stake.

But now is not the time for such deliberations. Now is the time for a supreme effort by everybody and all, at work, at home, to do our best, to bring to bear all we can muster, to stem the tide and defeat this crisis.

For more COVID Q&As click here
We're looking to hear from RSB members or Fellows who have shifted their research priorities or repurposed laboratories to help fight COVID-19. Contact tom.ireland@rsb.org.uk if you would like to be featured or have any information to contribute to this series.

Imre Berger FRSB is a synthetic biologist at the University of Bristol.