Scientists across the globe have come together to intensify research into COVID-19.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is moving to expand its scientific collaboration and monitoring of emerging variants of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Scientists from 124 countries across the globe met at a virtual WHO meeting to discuss critical knowledge gaps and research priorities for emerging variants of the virus.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said: “Science and research have played a vital role in responding to the pandemic since day one and will continue to be the heartbeat of everything WHO does.”
Advancing our understanding
The discussion covered the topics of epidemiology and mathematical modelling, evolutionary biology, animal models, assays and diagnostics, clinical management, and therapeutics and vaccines.
Dr Ana Maria Henao Restrepo, Head of WHO’s R&D Blueprint, said: “Our collective goal is to get ahead of the game and have a global mechanism to quickly identify and study variants of concern and understand their implications for disease control efforts.”
Mutation of a virus is completely normal – however, the WHO highlights that the more the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change and that high levels of transmission mean that the emergence of more variants should be expected.
Some of the new variants of coronavirus that have emerged are associated with increases in transmissibility, however, not with disease severity. Research is ongoing to address whether the changes impact public health tools and measures.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Technical Lead on COVID-19, added: “So far an astounding 350,000 sequences have been publicly shared, but most come from just a handful of countries. Improving the geographic coverage of sequencing is critical for the world to have eyes and ears on changes to the virus.”
Increasing sequencing capacity across the world is a priority research area for WHO, as genomic sequencing has been critical in identifying and responding to new variants. It was also concluded that better surveillance and lab capacity to monitor new strains needs to be accompanied by sharing of virus and serum samples, and the scientists highlighted the importance of national data platforms.