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How Scientists Are Mobilizing to Fight COVID-19

National panel of researchers discussed the shared response to the coronavirus pandemic

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An unprecedented challenge like the COVID-19 pandemic calls for not just interdisciplinary collaboration, but for scholars to reach out across communities and pool their resources to better understand the virus.

On April 9, health disparities researcher and IPR associate Michelle Birkett moderated a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) panel with researchers across the country on the topic.

“This is a diverse group of accomplished individuals who each have unique experiences and understandings of how researchers and the institutions in which they’re embedded can assist with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Birkett said. “We’re interested in figuring out what lessons colleges and universities can take forward from this crisis.” She is part of NASEM’s “New Voices” cohort, which works to center new and diverse voices into the work conducted by the National Academies.

Panelists included Matthew Golden of the University of Washington and of Seattle and King County Public Health, Michael Wells of MIT’s and Harvard’s Broad Institute, the Feinberg School of Medicine’s Lisa Hirschhorn, and Amy McDermott with the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

A doctor with expertise in implementation and how to improve access to medical care, Hirschhorn described how researchers have fought the pandemic both behind the scenes and on the front line, doing everything from converting their laboratories for testing to providing direct clinical care when needed. She emphasized the progress that’s been made in new areas like vaccine development and developing an understanding of the novel coronavirus itself, potentially the most important part of the research community’s response.

Hirschhorn compared those efforts to her experience in the 1980s as a researcher and HIV clinician. Then, the medical community had fought that virus for a number of years before even identifying it, and for over a decade until effective treatment was available. Hirschhorn described how a culture of rapid sharing for evidence was not prioritized, pointing now to how scientists’ coming together “has been really remarkable to see, in terms of developing an understanding of the virus.”

In the course of her reporting for PNAS, McDermott recounted how, she has found that some states across the country are relaxing restrictions on who can carry out coronavirus testing, opening the door for qualified scientists to volunteer at licensed laboratories not just now, but the next time such help is needed.

Wells, a neuroscientist, launched a national database of U.S. scientists willing to volunteer their knowledge, equipment, and skills. More than 9,000 scientific experts across a wide variety of disciplines have signed up to offer their help to cities, counties, and states during the pandemic.

Golden, a doctor, researcher, and public health expert, discussed how the pandemic has revealed where the research community and public health infrastructure could be better integrated but also to the academic community’s unprecedented response to COVID-19.

“In my 20 years of academic medicine, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this in terms of the speed and breadth of the involvement of the academic community with a medical problem,” Golden said.

See the recording of the panel here. Photo courtesy of iStock.

Published: May 7, 2020.