Science4COVID19: science heals

by Manuel Heitor

The mobilisation of critical agents in the production and dissemination of scientific and technologic knowledge, within the scope of the current pandemic caused by coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, mainly in the context of an increasing uncertainty and social alarm, has been particularly revealing of the prompt response to a time that requires, from all of us, a greater sense of civic duty, commitment with the public health and with the safety of all, especially with elderly and the most vulnerable people.

The challenge demands the mobilisation of all of us, mostly to ensure structuring measures to fight the pandemic, but also to stimulate the economy and new higher-value-added activities.

In this sense, and beyond the international efforts to find new therapies and vaccines, which still have a time for improvement and certification that is particularly demanding in scientific terms, the health authorities need to enlarge the population screening and testing, predominantly among elderly and vulnerable people. This process demands the enrolment of scientific and technical resources, namely to expand the scope of tests based on the extraction of genetic material from the virus, after its inactivation and, its detection by nucleic acid amplification techniques, by the polymerase chain reaction in real time, as well as to evolve into new tests based on serological analyses for the detection of antibodies in combination with immunological studies.

Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 14% of the infected people with COVID-19 have pneumonia and 5% enter in critical state, needing external ventilation to keep breathing and fight the disease, having recommended that all countries obtained ventilators to face the pandemic.

On the other hand, the demands imposed in this moment to the health system, to his professionals, and others in potential danger, imply the need of individual protection equipment and specific medical devices, which lack all around the world.

Many different initiatives have been launched in the last couple of weeks in Portugal to respond to different challenges set by scientific and academic institutions, technological centres, companies and public structures, including among others:

  1. The mobilisation of researchers from scientific and academic institutions and companies to develop new therapies and vaccines in international close cooperation;
  2. The development of diagnostic tests, following all guidelines regarding the handling and analysis of clinical specimens, namely with certification by the Instituto Nacional de Saúde Doutor Ricardo Jorge (INSA) and using reagents produced in Portugal, as well as allowing the estimation of viral load, a parameter that may be relevant in the evaluation of clinical prognosis;
  3. The development of screening systems, based on an anticipated identification of the patients with higher risk and allowing an early detection of the disease even before the patients have breathing problems;
  4. The development, unprecedented in Portugal, of ventilation systems and ventilators to support patients with severe pneumonia, in close collaboration with medical institutions and the industry, for instance: i) invasive ventilators of simple assembly and decentralized production, for hospital environment, ii) non-invasive ventilators adapted only for possible use as support equipment and iii) pandemic ventilators, relatively easy to execute, but very limited use;
  5. The development of Individual Protection Equipment, in close articulation with technological centres and industry;
  6. Other equipment and backup support, designed, conceived and produced by the several scientific and academic institutions all over the country.

It should be recognized the mobilisation effort of many higher education, science and technology institutions, mainly in the biomedical area, in gather and donate to hospitals and health care units equipment and backup support.

Portugal has also supported the initiatives of the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD) of European Commission that launched a funding program with a budget of €47.5 million through the programme “SC1-PHECORONAVIRUS-2020: Advancing knowledge for the clinical and public health response to the [COVID-19] epidemic”, whose results were already released, and in which one of the approved projects involves Instituto Nacional de Saúde Doutor Ricardo Jorge (INSA) e a Direção Geral da Saúde (DGS).

Meanwhile the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT) launched two new funding programmes in close collaboration with Agência de Investigação Clínica e Inovação Biomédica (AICIB), namely:

  1. RESEARCH 4 COVID 19”: to stimulate the reorientation of the currents teams of R&D to develop projects and initiatives of R&D that respond to the immediate needs of the Health Public Service in the fight of the new coronavirus, as new prevention tools, therapeutics, diagnostic methods, clinical and epidemiological studies, as well as R&D activities that include a socio-cultural component and actions to promote a resilient society with the capacity to face the current uncertainty, especially among the elderly and in the higher risk groups.
  2. AI 4 COVID-19 – Ciência dos Dados e Inteligência Artificial na Administração Pública”: to support projects and activities of scientific research and technological development that contribute to fight the current and futures pandemics through data science and artificial science, developed in partnership between public administration and the R&D institutions, with a focus on supporting citizens and health care services and entities, within the scope of Iniciativa Nacional Competências Digitais e.2030 (Portugal INCoDe.2030).

Towards the relevance of the activities underway by many of the researchers and technicians in many institutions, public and private, to respond to the epidemiological situation caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, as well as to leverage new technology-based economic activities in Portugal, it is important to mobilize researchers and their institutions with the essential capacity to effectively implement the ongoing efforts, as well as to mobilize other national scientific and technological institutes, companies and health technicians to ensure the effective implementation of the various actions.

Science heals!
Let us all mobilize!

Manuel Heitor
Minister of Science, Technology and Higher Education