“The mobilization of our country’s scientists has been impressive”

Professor Sophien Kamoun, group leader at the Sainsbury Laboratory, discusses how he and his colleagues have pivoted from studying plant pathogens to tracing a human pathogen at the heart of a global emergency, and how scientists unable to access wet labs can still contribute to research.

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

I normally investigate topics related to plant pathology and plant immunity. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed the focus of my research, but I was tasked within our laboratory to coordinate projects on innovations that could rapidly scale-up diagnostics.

Please tell us about any COVID-19 related projects you have been involved with and what they have achieved so far.

We used a bottom-up approach, which fits best with the ethos of The Sainsbury Laboratory. First we made an open call for ideas and volunteers in late March. I was truly impressed by the willingness of many of our scientists—from students to team leaders—to contribute their expertise and know-how.

Two teams immediately came together and sprung into action. One team has focused on implementing the Cas13a/SHERLOCK method for SARS-CoV-2 detection, while the second one is working on adapting “toehold switch” detection to this coronavirus. At the moment we are still testing these protocols with synthetic controls and haven’t yet worked with clinical samples.

We’re interested in how science works during a crisis, and how scientists have responded to these unprecedented circumstances. What have you done differently owing to this being an urgent, emergency situation?

First, it’s important to appreciate that people respond differently to a crisis like this. My first advice to everyone in my team and my collaborators was to carefully consider their own mental state and address any anxiety they may experience. I personally find exercise, meditation music and connecting with friends and family to be very helpful in relieving stress. It’s rather useless to try to get intellectual work done when you’re in the wrong frame of mind. This is true at any time but it’s even more relevant during this situation. So just like athletes before a sporting event, scientists need to learn to chill and relax.

The second advice is to revisit objectives and expectations. I advised my team to have a plan. What are your revised goals? How realistic are they? What would it take to achieve them?

Perhaps there is also a silver lining in this crisis. In biology, everyone has been busy producing huge amounts of data. But if the data isn’t shared and published, it’s generally useless. Now that we are kept away from the wet labs, perhaps there is more time to process and share unpublished datasets. If you have such data, then this is the time to curate it and share it. There are many open platforms that allow you to publish datasets and barebone mini-publications, which shouldn’t take that long to produce.

The prevailing paradigm in biology is that those who produce the data are expected to publish it. But why should that always be the case? If the dataset is worth sharing, then anyone who curates it and analyses it should be in a position to publish it (with due credit to everyone involved of course). That still would be a valued and valuable contribution to add to a CV. We have identified such old unpublished datasets in my lab, and we hope that any extra time offered by this situation would allow us to share and release these data in the coming weeks.

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

Beyond the typical channels, social media continues to serve as a key medium for communicating and disseminating information. Many scientists are on Twitter and I have been posting more frequently on Facebook to reach out to scientists in developing countries given that they tend to be more active on this platform. For instance, Facebook has proven important for sharing knowledge with communities and help groups in Tunisia, my country of origin.

It’s also worth highlighting the key role that preprint servers have played in this crisis. First, preprints, such as bioRxiv and medRxiv, have accelerated the dissemination of new COVID-19 research. Second, preprints allow immediate sharing of all those papers that scientists are writing up during lockdowns. As an affiliate for bioRxiv, I get to see and approve submitted papers, and there has been up to 200 papers in the queue. I don’t think the classic journal model can cope with such a surge in submissions as the system is overloaded. Just imagine how we would cope without bioRxiv at the moment! All that good science that would be held up for months and months for no one to see.

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 Sainsbury Laboratory and other Institutes on the Norwich Research Park reacted proactively to the crisis. I think the fact that we have a lot of contact with colleagues in China made us more attuned to the scale of the problem. We implemented social distancing and reduced occupancy policies early, in the week of March 9th.

We have made our own hand-sanitiser and distributed it widely. Some of our staff arranged to collect and distribute PPE to the hospital, including masks received from collaborators in China. In addition, several members of our Laboratory have volunteered at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals to help scale-up COVID-19 diagnostics.

The laboratory is currently closed except for essential maintenance work and the COVID-19 projects. Most of the other work that is currently taking place is either computational or focused on analysing and publishing previously generated data. All meetings have moved to online platforms.

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

I think the sector has fully engaged with the crisis. The mobilization of our country’s scientists has been impressive, as evidenced for example by the number of volunteers. However, like many of my colleagues, I was surprised by the government’s initial response – the general impression I had is that there was a period of laisser-faire before robust measures were implemented. It seemed imprudent to me that as Lombardy went into lockdown, you couldn’t take a train from Milan to Rome but you could fly from Milan to Heathrow with absolutely no checks whatsoever upon arrival.

I was also stunned by the infamous press briefing of Thursday March 12th when the mitigation strategy of herd immunity was announced. Fortunately, the scientific community reacted strongly, and I was very impressed by the broad pushback. I agree with the view that, in due time, we must investigate what happened to be better prepared for the next pandemic.

Looking forward, I hope that there will be a better appreciation of the importance of curiosity-driven fundamental research. Let’s reflect on the fact that COVID-19 diagnostics are based on PCR—a method that was discovered through a scientist’s creative exploration of an idea, not through top-down impact driven research.

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The Biologist is 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.

Professor Sophien Kamoun is a group leader at The Sainsbury Laboratory. His group studies how filamentous plant pathogens, such as the Irish potato famine pathogen Phytophthora infestans, infect plants.