From the plagues of medieval Europe to the influenza pandemic of 1918, the specter of the next public health disaster has gripped the minds of scientists, captivated the imaginations of writers and vexed conspiracy theorists.
New insights are accumulating rapidly, but many things about the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and the disease that it causes, COVID-19, remain unknown. One thing, however, is certain, experts say: This pandemic will not be the last.
The newly formed Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness aims to address both the immediate and long-term implications of the crisis. The effort, led by Harvard Medical School, will work to stem the tide of COVID-19 but, more importantly, to lay the groundwork for dealing with future pandemics.
“This is a historic moment. It reminds us why we have dedicated our lives and careers to science and medicine,” said HMS Dean George Q. Daley. “The novel corona virus is a public health crisis of cataclysmic proportions. It compels us to forge new levels of collaboration across Boston, Cambridge and beyond to address both the immediate challenges of this pandemic and to create a rapid-response system to deal with future crises.”
The initiative, formalized at a March 2 meeting at HMS, was sparked by a collaborative research grant from the China Evergrande Group. Under the research agreement, $115 million will be shared equally between Boston-based researchers and colleagues at the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Health.
The Boston-based consortium, spearheaded by Daley and faculty co-leads Arlene Sharpe and Bruce Walker, already involves more than 100 scientists across five area universities, and institutes, as well as Harvard-affiliated hospitals. More scientists are joining the ranks daily.
“This is an extraordinary, collaborative effort which brings together scientists and clinicians from across Boston’s research community to tackle this crisis and prepare for potential future outbreaks,” said Sharpe, chair of the Department of Immunology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS. “The response to COVID-19 is unprecedented and truly inspiring.”
Walker, a virologist and HIV expert, describes the new coronavirus as an existential threat that demands pan-institutional and transnational alliances.
“This is not business as usual,” said Walker,the Phillip T. and Susan M. Ragon Professor of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of immunology at HMS. “There’s a huge amount of knowledge that can be applied collectively and collaboratively. There is a phenomenal sense of energy and commitment from everyone involved, and the important thing is that we sustain it. We are now moving beyond institutional allegiances and allying with each other to try to solve this critical problem.”
Evidence about the new virus–its biology, its behavior, its effects on the body–is growing by the day, with papers posted on preprint servers for the global scientific community to dissect and pull from before the research has undergone standard peer review. Across the globe, there are multiple vaccine trials and a growing number of clinical trials testing experimental treatments for COVID-19.
As scientists forge ahead to piece together a comprehensive profile of the virus fueling this historic pandemic, researchers are focusing their efforts on six areas: epidemiology, diagnostics, pathogenesis, clinical disease management, treatment and vaccines.
Read more at Harvard Medical School