After racing to help the world understand Covid-19, scientists grapple with how to pick up the research they put on hold

In the earliest days of the pandemic, it was the small, long-underfunded coterie of dedicated coronavirus researchers answering almost all of the world’s questions about the emerging threat.

But as SARS-CoV-2 took off, researchers from other specialties flooded in, drawn by the scale of the emergency, a desire to put their skills to use, and the competitive nature of scientific inquiry. For experts with even marginally relevant expertise, the question became, “What can I do?”

“Everyone just wanted to help,” said Lynn Hedrick of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. “You felt like, ‘Oh my God, no one understands this disease, and we have to figure this out.’”

Now, with the pandemic beginning to ebb in the United States, many of those scientists say they’re grappling with how to transition more of their efforts back to their primary research pursuits. They’re taking stock of non-Covid-19 projects that were scuttled or, at best, delayed because of monthslong lab closures and capacity limits, as well as all the time and resources devoted to studying the coronavirus — a particular concern for early-career researchers. On top of it all, they’re not abandoning the coronavirus investigations they picked up during the pandemic, and are now weighing the demands of balancing it all.

“When you take on a project, the other projects haven’t gone away,” said Kevin Saunders, director of research for the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.

Before the pandemic, Saunders and colleagues had been at work developing HIV vaccines, a pursuit they’re now devoting about 80% of their time to. But they’re also designing a vaccine that could target an array of coronaviruses, an endeavor they started during the pandemic. Now, they’re juggling parallel projects, trying to keep up in two competitive fields.

At Washington University in St. Louis, Michael Diamond’s lab is in the throes of investigating immune responses to coronavirus variants, even as the team has resumed work on other viruses, he said. While his team generally focuses on families like flaviviruses (think Zika and dengue) and alphaviruses (like chikungunya), fundamentally they study emerging pathogens — how they infect and sicken, and how the body responds to them. The coronavirus fit squarely in that wheelhouse. 

“SARS-CoV-2 has become a main area of work in the lab,” he said.

In other cases, the transition to Covid was more of a jump. Hedrick, the La Jolla Institute immunologist, specializes in heart disease and cancer and hadn’t previously done much viral immunology. But when her lab shut down last spring, she partnered with virus-focused colleagues who were getting samples from Covid-19 patients and whose work was allowed to keep going. Hedrick started studying the cells she normally looked at in other conditions — like monocytes and macrophages — to see what they were doing in Covid-19.

“It was insane,” Hedrick said about the early months. “Just the flurry of activity, everybody was on edge, everybody wanted to help people, the world. The samples would come, you wouldn’t know when — everything was just fast. If the samples came, you had to be ready to go.”

That frenzy has since dissipated, but Hedrick is still investigating some of the long-term complications of the infection on the lungs and heart. It’s become another arm of her lab’s work on top of her existing cancer and cardiovascular disease projects.

“We still don’t know the long-term ramifications of this,” she said.

The veterans of coronavirology, of course, played leading roles in unspooling the secrets of  SARS-2, serving as institutional sages, testing antivirals, and offering gut checks on how this virus compared to past scourges like the original SARS virus and the MERS virus.

It also made sense for many now-leading Covid-19 researchers to swivel to the coronavirus. Infectious disease epidemiologists may have their preferred pathogens, but they could forecast how the new virus would circulate — and what kind of interventions could stop it. Immunologists could look at the way our bodies responded to the infection. Scientists who studied the interactions between pathogens and people had a new virus-host relationship to interrogate, while evolutionary virologists had a new specimen to monitor for changes.

Of course, the desire of non-coronavirologists to get involved hasn’t always been helpful. Lots of experts got over their skis in their predictions or analyses, even if they had Ph.D. or MPH or other letters after their names that bestowed some legitimacy. Even if the intent wasn’t malicious or they weren’t spreading outright misinformation, some scientists wading into Covid-19 findings simply came to wrong conclusions. The pandemic was also so all-encompassing that infectious disease experts were being asked to weigh in on mental health consequences or clinicians were asked to crystal ball the future of viral evolution. In debates over issues like airborne transmission and reopening schools, researchers sometimes clashed over their merging epistemological lanes.

But as Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of the Science journals, noted, most of the problems came “in commentary, rather than in research.” It was easy to opine — and tweet — even if you didn’t know much about respiratory viruses or infectious disease epidemiology.

Scientists got involved in Covid-19 research out of “a mix of opportunism and wholesome quest for knowledge and discovery,” Thorp said — a desire to help the world, but also because studying Covid-19 seemed like a good way to win funding and publish in a plum journal. But despite what he described as “hiccups, with some people not knowing what they were talking about,” the flood of interest has, for the most part, been “a good thing, because you get smart people working together.”

Scientists outside coronavirology weren’t just diving into research — they were driving parts of the public health response as well. Epidemiologists consulted with governmental officials at all levels, drafting models for governors’ offices and advising school boards on reopening plans.

At the University of California, Riverside, virologist Juliet Morrison, who focuses on flu and flaviviruses, helped stand up the institution’s testing program, but she also saw another role for herself. As a Black person and an immigrant from Jamaica, she wanted to communicate to the public to help overcome doubts about the pandemic and vaccines.

“There’s just so much distrust for the medical establishment and the scientific establishment, and sometimes for good reason,” Morrison said. “So I felt like me out there talking and with my face, I felt like it could maybe convince people that Covid wasn’t a hoax, and now with vaccines, why people should get them.”

But Morrison, an early-career scientist trying to build her body of work, also felt pressure to get back to her ongoing projects on dengue and flu instead of diving into SARS-2 research. She worries sometimes she’s now behind researchers at other institutions that didn’t shut down labs for as long, even as she’s aware that’s not a major complaint given what others went through during the pandemic.

“In the long run, what’s a few months?” she said.

Jennifer Hamilton, a postdoc in Jennifer Doudna’s University of California, Berkeley, lab, also faced delays in her research, even as she helped build a Covid-19 testing program for her campus and community. Spending so much time on the testing project and the monthslong restrictions on how many people could be in the lab when it reopened set back her time frame to complete a manuscript — an imperative for postdocs trying to move up the academic ladder.

But the experience establishing the testing program shaped her academic ambitions in other ways.

“It made me feel more confident to lead a team and garner resources from scratch,” she said. “And to build something that actually works.”

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