Research in the time of a pandemic: An interview with WHO

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By: undefined, Wed May 27 2020

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As part of our new series ‘Research in the time of a pandemic’ we are talking to researchers and other key stakeholders involved in the battle against COVID-19 across the globe to understand better the work they are doing, how it contributes to humanity’s collective efforts to find a solution, as well as deciphering all aspects of the research underway to understand it for what it is, a human endeavour.

In this week’s interview, the World Health Organization (WHO) discusses its COVID-19 response and preparedness plans, the importance of collaboration and knowledge sharing in the global research efforts, as well as providing us with some valuable insights into the future.

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What is the role of research in WHO’s work?

Research is indispensable for resolving public health challenges – whether it be tackling diseases of poverty, responding to rise of chronic diseases, or ensuring that mothers have access to safe delivery practices.

Likewise, shared vulnerability to global threats, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, Ebola virus disease, Zika virus and avian influenza has mobilized global research efforts in support of enhancing capacity for preparedness and response. Research is strengthening surveillance, rapid diagnostics and development of vaccines and medicines. 

Can you tell us a bit more about WHOs ‘COVID-19 Global Research Roadmap’ as well as the ‘R&D blueprint’ and how those are being utilised to coordinate research and development efforts?

The WHO R&D Blueprint is a global strategy and preparedness plan that allows the rapid activation of R&D activities during epidemics.

Under the R&D Blueprint, WHO held a research and innovation summit on 11-12 February 2020. Over 400 of the world’s leading experts set research priorities in pursuing COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics, and overall understanding. The deliberations formed the R&D roadmap, which focuses on research that can save lives now, as well as longer-term research priorities for vaccines and therapeutics. 

"The WHO R&D Blueprint is a global strategy and preparedness plan that allows the rapid activation of R&D activities during epidemics."

Can you talk to us about the importance of sharing data openly as well as the role of AI and big data in regards to the virus’ research efforts?

For public health emergencies, WHO has a systematic and transparent process for research and development, including for clinical trials of new drugs and vaccines. The WHO “R&D Blueprint” for COVID-19, initiated on 7 January 2020, serves as the global strategy for R&D activities. Its aim is to fast-track the availability of effective tests, vaccines and medicines that can be used to save lives and avert large scale crises. 

In health and medicine, expanding public and private sources of data (including non-traditional sources) and the ever-increasing capability to analyse, visualize and model data reveal patterns, problems and evidence for action for use by researchers and policy-makers. The tools, methods and technologies used in “Big Data” and artificial intelligence (AI) are already being used to improve health services and systems, and the policies, practices and capabilities to support them must keep pace. This is a major challenge, given that more human lives will be touched by health information technology than any other technology, ever.

How have key stakeholders (researchers, subject experts, clinical experts, government, public and private sector, other relevant institutions) worked together in a national and a global level during this crisis?

Since the very beginning of the outbreak, WHO manages global networks of researchers and other experts to coordinate global work on surveillance, epidemiology, forecasting, diagnostics, clinical care and treatment, and other ways to identify, manage the disease and limit onward transmission.

A total of 22 WHO reference laboratories, from various regions, are taking part in a network, dedicated to strengthen global diagnostic capacity for COVID-19 detection to improve surveillance, address testing of the virus and samples sharing, and track the spread of disease. Eighty clinicians, currently treating patients with COVID-19 from 25 countries, are involved in a clinical network to discuss clinical research, the character of the disease, patient presentation, complications, challenges experienced, and treatments used. There is the WHO R&D Blueprint, mentioned above, which is a global strategy and preparedness plan that allows the rapid activation of R&D activities during epidemics. The R&D roadmap focuses on research that can save lives now, as well as longer-term research priorities for vaccines and therapeutics. WHO also coordinates several groups of independent experts to continuously review all the new evidence on therapies and vaccines. The Solidarity trial was launched by WHO and partners to generate data on most effective treatments. 

"Since the very beginning of the outbreak, WHO manages global networks of researchers and other experts to coordinate global work..."

What are some key learnings you would like to share?

Particular attention and support will be required in countries with low-capacity and humanitarian settings ill-equipped to cope with COVID‑19 due to weak health systems and workforces that are heavily reliant on the support of donors, UN and NGO partners.

WHO plans and strategies outline the public health measures that the international community should stand ready to provide to support all countries to prepare for and respond to COVID-19, based on what we have learned so far about the virus. This knowledge needs to be translated into strategic action that can guide the efforts of all national and international partners when developing context-specific national and regional operational plans.

As lockdowns in Europe ease with declining numbers of new cases, we continue to urge countries to find, isolate, test and treat all cases of COVID-19 and trace every contact, to ensure these declining trends continue. The pandemic is far from over. WHO continues to be concerned about the increasing trends in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and some Asian countries.

We have a long road ahead of us, and a lot of work to do. WHO is committed to doing everything we can to support all countries, but we can only defeat this virus through unity at the national level and solidarity at the global level.

What should we expect in the future?

As we consider transition, we must acknowledge there are no ‘quick wins’. Complexity and uncertainty lie ahead, which means that we are entering a period where we may need to rapidly adjust measures, introduce and remove restrictions, and ease restrictions gradually, whilst constantly monitoring the effectiveness of these actions and the response of the public. Ultimately, the behaviour of each of us will determine the behaviour of the virus. This will take perseverance and patience, there is no fast-track back to normal.

Countries need to commit and respond to stop COVID-19 in a whole-of-government and whole-of-society strategic action and WHO has been providing them with support to guide their public health response at national and subnational levels, see COVID-19 plans and strategies.

As outlined in the COVID-19 Strategy update, for countries that have introduced widespread physical distancing measures and population-level movement restrictions, there is an urgent need to plan for a phased transition away from such restrictions in a manner that will enable the sustainable suppression of transmission at a low-level whilst enabling the resumption of some parts of economic and social life, prioritized by carefully balancing socio-economic benefit and epidemiological risk. Without careful planning, and in the absence of scaled up public health and clinical care capacities, the premature lifting of physical distancing measures is likely to lead to an uncontrolled resurgence in COVID‑19 transmission and an amplified second wave of cases. More in the considerations in adjusting public health and social measures in the context of COVID-19.

We would like to thank Mr. Tarik Jasarevic, WHO Spokesperson.

Other Blogs you might find interesting:

Research in the time of a pandemic: Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

Research in the time of a pandemic: How a 2018 BBC documentary helped advance COVID-19 research

Research in the time of a pandemic: SENTINEL- A proactive, early warning system to pre-empt future pandemics

All our interviews reflect the views and opinions of the interviewees. 

To discover and access the latest research on coronavirus for free, as well as to find out about the ways Springer Nature supports the research community during this crisis, visit our SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 hub.

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