How Did Alliance4Life´s Research Institutes Deal With the Pandemic?

In March 2020, everything changed. The whole world felt the impact of the coronavirus crisis that surprised us all, including the scientific community. The global situation clearly shows that the top-level expertise in health research and the availability of capacities and state-of-the-art equipment are crucial for tackling the crisis. Alliance4Life did not stand idly by during this difficult time. Since the epidemic outbreak, the activities of Alliance4Life´s research institutes and universities not only proved the impact of Life Science investments on Central and Eastern Europe, but also demonstrated their great professional and altruistic approaches that benefited society. 


CEITEC Ensured the Safety of Its Employees and Citizens, Kept the Public Informed, and Developed Alternative Testing Methods


Immediately after the first three confirmed cases of Covid-19 were reported in the Czech Republic, CEITEC’s laboratories offered their capacities to the government and obtained a special permit to serve as a back-up testing laboratory for the local faculty hospital, in order to ensure an adequate testing capacity for the region. Researchers from the medical genomics program, including doctoral students, volunteered to assist with the actual coronavirus testing. The laboratories had to be quickly adapted to serve this purpose. 

Due to the European-wide shortages in available chemicals for the isolation of viral RNA, CEITEC's Genomics Core Facility quickly adopted a new protocol for isolation, using locally available materials. All necessary goods were obtained and an in-house isolation protocol was tested and implemented within two weeks. The results of this isolation protocol were comparable to those of commercial kits, and later passed an external quality assessment. The Genomics Core Facility offered their help to other institutions in Brno that were also experiencing material shortages. Thus, CEITEC's in-house protocol was introduced to the FN USA and CKTCH laboratories. Scientists from the Genomics Core Facility are now prepared for at least 1000 instant isolations, with the potential to quickly increase this number to tens of thousands, in the case of another shortage of isolation chemicals within the region.

Shortly after the testing started, the scientists at CEITEC began developing an alternative testing method that could serve as a validation method to PCR, be implemented in the field, or as a point-of-care testing method. This method is based on LAMP (Linear isothermal amplification). This research later obtained support from the Technology Agency of the Czech Republic (TAČR). The scientists are continuing with this research and are confident that it will lead to the development of a new diagnostic kit by the end of 2020.

CEITEC's virologist, Pavel Plevka, served as a specialist advisor during the design of the workplace safety measures in order to ensure the maximum protection of CEITEC employees. He was also very actively engaged as a virology expert in the mainstream media, providing the newest scientific updates that summarised findings from most the recent scientific studies in an understandable language for everyone. Plevka provided objective scientific information with the aim to minimise panic and misinformation.

The institute’s priority was to ensure the safety of its people, to continue the scientific project, and to serve Czech citizens and residents as much as possible, with their scientific expertise and modern laboratory equipment.

Additionally, the CEITEC management was quick to introduce and communicate the relevant safety measures that protected the institute's employees and kept them adequately informed. The institute promptly communicated all relevant information to its employees and doctoral students in the Czech and English languages, and switched to the home office regime on the very first day that the government announced school closures. Since home office is not an unusual practice at CEITEC, the transition went very smoothly, and online communication tools were adopted without any aversions.  Despite the shock that this novel disease and sudden strict government measures brought, this new reality didn’t have much of a negative impact on the normal operation of the institute. The pragmatic and flexible scientists simply adapted to the new reality.

Employees who chose to or who had to work from their office or laboratory were provided with clear safety rules regarding distancing at the workplace, shifts within teams to minimise possible infection spreading, and were equipped with a sufficient amount of disinfectants. Everyone was instructed on the safety measures to take in the case that an employee became infected with the new coronavirus. At-risk groups, such as people with chronic diseases, elderly employees, and pregnant women were advised to follow extra safety measures. Working parents with school children, and single parents could continue to work from home for the entire duration that the schools were closed.

Even students from Masaryk University lent a helping hand and assisted local people in need, by shopping for the elderly, helping working parents by teaching and supervising their children while the schools were closed. The crisis has awoken an amazing sense of solidarity and innovation that is present not only in the Czech Republic, but all over the world, and has clearly demonstrated the irreplaceable importance of science in society. 

Even students from Masaryk University lent a helping hand and assisted local people in need, by shopping for the elderly, helping working parents by teaching and supervising their children while the schools were closed. The crisis has awoken an amazing sense of solidarity and innovation that is present not only in the Czech Republic, but all over the world, and has clearly demonstrated the irreplaceable importance of science in society.


The Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis Developed New Therapeutic and Prophylactic Treatments against Covid-19


The Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis (LIOS) was also very busy protecting its employees and reorganising work, according to safety and government restrictions. Despite limitations, the institute managed to continue working on all of their research projects. Scientists from the institute also joined a new project competition under the Latvian State Research Program to contribute to the future health and well-being of society.

The Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis (LIOS), in collaboration with Latvia’s leading research organisations in the field of biomedical research and drug discovery (i.e., the Institute of Solid-State Physics, the University of Latvia, and Riga Technical University) were selected for a research grant from the Latvian State Research Program that aims at minimising Covid-19’s impact on society. The program covers many different aspects, including direct antiviral therapeutic and prophylactic measures. The consortium partners have already started working on the development of new vaccine candidates and small molecule drug leads that are directed against coronaviruses, particularly the Covid-19 disease and its complications. The first project results will be available in the end of 2020, when the project ends.


Vilnius University Assessed and Predicted the Epidemiological Situation in Lithuania


In order to prevent the spread of the infection and to contribute in controlling it, an expert group of life scientists from Vilnius University joined experts from various other fields, forming an interdisciplinary expert group initiated by the university management. Representatives of the group were involved in the Lithuanian Government’s activities under the State Emergency Operations Centre, and provided recommendations on the methods and measures for virus control, as well as performed short-term and long-term prognostic modelling of the virus spread in Lithuania. The scientists shared relevant information with the public at press conferences organised by the Government and in the media.

In order to prevent the public’s anxiety and fear (which are often fuelled by inadequate awareness and a great amount of coordinated disinformation), in collaboration with the Lithuanian public broadcaster, LRT, Vilnius University launched a series of informational programmes and articles called “VU ekspertai padeda suprasti” (Vilnius University experts help understand). In these programmes and articles, scientists clearly and comprehensibly talked about the measures of pandemic control and their necessity.

In April 2020, the Vilnius University Life Sciences Centre’s scientific laboratory was reorganised in just 12 days to serve as a diagnostic laboratory for supporting the country with coronavirus testing. In order to contribute to pandemic control, not only by providing knowledge and information, but also with practical work, more than 8,000 COVID-19 samples were tested in this laboratory. In addition, the centre’s scientists carried out the validation of seroepidemiologic tests in a short period of time, which made it possible to plan studies that are important for assessing and predicting the epidemiological situation in Lithuania. Volunteers from Vilnius University’s community, including scientists and students, also worked for free in other diagnostic laboratories in the country, where COVID-19 samples were tested – such as the Vilnius University Hospital Santaros Klinikos, National Cancer Institute, National Public Health Centre, mobile testing units, as well as others.

To protect the university residents that were working on the pandemic’s front lines, the Vilnius University Fund organised a fundraising campaign to purchase protective equipment such as respirators, protective suits, face shields, and protective eye wear. It was expected that the campaign would raise 10,000 euros, but expectations triply exceeded this – 30,800 euros were collected, and 4,500 respirators, 650 protective suits, 350 protective face shields, and 100 protective eye glasses were purchased for people in the front lines.


University of Ljubljana's Institute of Microbiology and Immunology Became One of the Key COVID-19 Testing Facilities in the Country


Like elsewhere globally, the COVID-19 pandemic had a dramatic impact on the programmes and activities of the University of Ljubljana. Employees of the Faculty of Medicine were very busy over the past few months, trying to reorganise their activities, programmes, and calendars to effectively adapt to the new reality. The entire faculty continuously modified their work processes to reflect all of the standard safety precautions, while taking into consideration other evolving university and government response measures and recommendations.

The faculty professors successfully transferred the pedagogic process into online learning, and have continued to provide well-structured online lectures and seminars, as well as modified literature and exams.

Scientists from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ljubljana have been engaged with the government through various consulting activities, such as designing and implementing the different arms of national response strategies and interventions. They were also very active in the mainstream media by delivering scientific updates to society. Virologists from the Faculty of Medicine conducted a large countrywide study on the prevalence of COVID-19, which gave crucial insights into the epidemic progression. Moreover, the Institute of Microbiology and Immunology, which is part of the University of Ljubljana, became one of the key COVID-19 testing facilities in the country.

Additionally, the student community has been an indispensable volunteer force in the pandemic response, providing a broad spectrum of essential services for vulnerable populations such the elderly in retirement homes. Many students also volunteered to work in an information call centre, where they provided information about COVID-19, as well as safety measures and precautions to more than 42.000 callers, under the supervision of professors that were specialised in infectious disease.  Students from the University of Ljubljana also volunteered to help supervise children of actively engaged healthcare workers when the schools and kindergartens were closed.


The Biomedical Research Center of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (BMC SAS) Developed Tests and Shared Genomic Sequences of the Virus


BMC SAS virologists reacted to the pandemic even before the appearance of the first positive case of infection in Slovakia by connecting with the academic community, sharing expert knowledge on the SARS-CoV-2 virus’ characteristics and its epidemiological threads with the general public, and providing recommendations on how to prevent and reduce the virus from spreading across the population. From January 2020 until now, researchers from the Biomedical Research Center (BMC SAS) participated in more than 100 discussions, interviews, articles, documentary features, and opinions related to the COVID-19 pandemic through TV, radio, newspapers, the web, and other types of media. BMC SAS researchers also participated in several advisory bodies to the governmental crisis management staff, as well as in the crisis staff of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, by providing expert opinions on testing strategies and anti-epidemic measures.

Furthermore, BMC SAS virologists promptly adopted the infrastructure of the BSL3 laboratory that was certified to work with highly pathogenic infectious agents, to the RT-PCR testing of swab samples for SAR-CoV-2 RNA, and offered this infrastructure as well as its human capacities, to the state authorities in order to improve the intensity of testing. Thus, BMC SAS was the first external institution to provide routine testing for COVID-19 in collaboration with the Office for Public Health of the Slovak Republic, with a daily testing capacity of 92 to 368 samples. From 18 March to 23 July 2020, BMC SAS researchers tested more than 10,000 samples.

Furthermore, BMC SAS virologists led by Boris Klempa, Head of the Department of Virus Ecology and a BMC SAS representative in the European Virus Archive with global reach (EVA GLOBAL), generated four clinical SARS-CoV-2 isolates from Slovak COVID-19 patients. The viruses were included in the EVA GLOBAL archive (https://www.european-virus-archive.com) and are available worldwide to the research community. Their genomic sequences were submitted to the GISAID database.

Boris Klempa and his colleague Juraj Koci also participated in the development and validation of the first EC certified Slovak RT-qPCR vDETECT kit, which is currently being used by the Regional Offices of Public Health of the Slovak Republic for routine SARS-CoV-2 testing. Boris Klempa’s team is currently developing virological and immunological tests to facilitate the surveillance of the current infection and to improve Slovakia’s readiness in the case of the next potential virus outbreak.

BMC personnel of the R&D facility of the Biotechnological laboratories SAS had to address a shortage of disinfectants at the beginning of the pandemic, and thus established the production of disinfectants that were provided to the Office of Presidium and all institutes of the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

BMC endocrinologists from the Centre of Physical Activity BMC SAS that perform interventional studies on the impact of regular physical activity on physical health prepared online training programs for seniors and patients, in order to enable them to continue with beneficial physical activities during the pandemic. The online trainings designed by the endocrinologists had more than 10,000 followers.