Microbial Sciences in a Post-COVID-19 World

Nov. 20, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of the microbial sciences to the entire world. In an effort to explore the future of microbial science research and its impact on ongoing pandemic preparation, prevention and management, the American Academy of Microbiology and the ASM Council on Microbial Sciences (COMS) organized a half-day virtual symposium on Tuesday, Nov.10, 2020. “This is fundamentally a microbial problem,” stated ASM President Dr. Victor DiRita in his opening remarks about COVID-19. He also noted that the ASM has been at the frontlines of supporting the microbial sciences and hoped that the symposium would be an opportunity for the community “to look to the future.” The symposium brought together influential researchers and leaders from academia, government and the private sector to share their insights and recommendations for the future.

Echoing DiRita’s statement, Academy Chair of Governors Dr. Arturo Casadevall stated that science is the “exit strategy” for COVID-19. However, better preparation for future pandemics requires the scientific community to reflect, process and build upon the lessons learned from COVID-19. To complete that mission, the Academy and COMS set out to answer the following key questions:
  1. How can the microbial science research community better prepare for the next pandemic?
  2. How can the microbial science research community leverage the opportunities and address the challenges we are currently facing?
  3. How can the microbial science research community build and maintain effective partnerships to facilitate collaborative success?


Breaking Down Scientific Silos

In his keynote address, “The Current State of Scientific Research During the Pandemic,” Dr. Nevan Krogan expressed the value of collaboration across scientific disciplines. He highlighted how the work of a consortium of academic and industry partners in diverse fields, such as systems biology, structural biology and genetics, has led to the generation of a virus-human protein interaction network for SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV. These interaction studies help identify conserved coronavirus pathways and allow researchers to design therapeutics (for this and future coronavirus pandemics) that are targeted to those conserved pathways.

“The silver lining is the realization of how fast we can move when scientists work together when silos are broken down,” stated Krogan. He noted that building and maintaining diverse collaborations and partnerships will be paramount to facing scientific challenges in the future.

Panel 1: Elevating the Role of Rigorous Scientific Research

Panelists:

Vincent Racaniello, Ph.D., Susan Weiss, Ph.D., Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., Geralyn Miller, Tara Smith, Ph.D.

Discussion:

COVID-19 has increased public interest in the microbial sciences, and scientists have become public figures with the responsibility to communicate scientific findings and knowledge. Investment in basic science, as well as reliance on sound data production and analysis, have greatly aided and continue to drive the ongoing COVID-19 response. Over 40 years of research on coronaviruses has facilitated the quick design and development of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2.

Action Items:

COVID-19 will not be the last global threat to public health. Funding organizations need to invest in diverse collaborations, as well as the continuation of basic science research, in order to prepare for these future threats. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) and data science can be implemented to survey for zoonotic diseases at the human-animal interface and identify novel diseases.

Additionally, scientists and scientific organizations must learn how to engage with the public about community public health measures and the importance of science funding in order to build public trust and participation. To communicate effectively, scientists need to collaborate with other fields — including data and computing science — to disseminate correct information and combat inaccuracies.

Panel 2: Investing in Public Health Infrastructure

Panelists:

Esther Babady, Ph.D., Susan DeLong, Ph.D., Chris Karp, M.D., Lee Riley, M.D., Fred Tenover, Ph.D.

Discussion:

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the inequities and structural deficiencies in the global public health system. Currently, there is no integrated system to connect data collected in clinical labs with the local public health system to inform policies or mitigation practices. To anticipate local outbreaks, surveillance of wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 could be expanded in an effort to inform communities of early virus detection.

Action Items:

Continued emphasis on the development of faster and more sensitive tests, which balance the need for high sensitivity clinical diagnostics and lower sensitivity community screening for COVID-19, is critical. Data science and public/private partnerships can create better connections between clinicians and public health offices. Additionally, global surveillance for zoonotic diseases must become an integrated step in the public health system, allowing for targeted intervention in an inexpensive manner. Expanded funding for public health research and initiatives is needed in order to meet current and future needs.

Panel 3: Building Reliable Tools and Effective Partnerships

Panelists:

A. Oveta Fuller, Ph.D., Mike Diamond M.D., Ph.D., Nevan Krogan, Ph.D., Sheri Schully, Ph.D., Tayab Waseem, Ph.D.

Discussion:

The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired many scientists to break out of their scientific silos and establish interdisciplinary collaborations. The virtual world, inspired by the pandemic, has made it easier for collaborative groups to assemble, generate and exchange large amounts of data very quickly. In preparation for the next pandemic, the infrastructure for these partnerships must be maintained and strengthened. Global alliances would allow the scientific community to leverage their collective knowledge and target scarce resources to areas most in need.

Action Items:

To ensure that interdisciplinary collaborations continue, the current value system in science must change. Funding agencies need to prioritize funding for collaborative groups and academia must recognize contributions of interdisciplinary groups through awards and tenure. Additionally, investment in research tools that facilitate the sharing of diverse data sets is needed. And training in the microbial science must integrate big data techniques and interdisciplinary research approaches.

Lessons Learned From COVID-19

While the infrastructure and systemic changes needed to face future pandemics may seem daunting, symposium participants displayed optimism. COMS Chair Dr. Suzanne Fleiszig encouraged the scientific community to focus on the “fantastic things we’ve been learning from this experience.” The challenges and opportunities presented by the COVID-19 pandemic must be repurposed to facilitate preparation for the next pandemic through the establishment of strong relationships with diverse fields and investments in an integrated public health system.

In closing, Casadevall noted that “COVID changes everything…This calamity will change science,” but the spirit of change will guide scientists in tackling current and future global challenges. The symposium ended with a renewed commitment to science and innovation.
 
The ASM Virtual Symposium resulted from the dedicated efforts of many solution-minded individuals including Academy Chair of the Governors Arturo Casadevall, Academy Governors Mary Estes and Carey-Ann Burnham, COMS Chair Suzanne Fleiszig and COMS Vice-Chair Rebecca Ferrell. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this assembly.
 
The mission of the American Academy of Microbiology:
  • Recognize excellence in the field of microbiology.
  • Convene & provide scientific leadership as a Think-tank within ASM.
  • Inform, educate & inspire the public and the microbial science community of the scientific advancements.
The mission of COMS is to support the work of ASM:
  • Setting priorities for the Society.
  • Identifying upcoming opportunities in the microbial sciences.
  • Identifying scientific trends to ensure effective programs and scientific activities.

Author: Rachel Burckhardt, Ph.D.

Rachel Burckhardt, Ph.D.
Rachel Burckhardt is a Scientific Literature Reviewer for ASM, where she connects scientists to the latest COVID-19 research. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RMBurckhardt.