This week, scientists at the Francis Crick Institute welcomed Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), and Sir Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, to the Crick to discuss progress in virus surveillance and pandemic preparedness.
Joined by global health and policy experts from WHO and the Department of Health and Social Care, they toured the Crick’s facilities and heard from researchers preparing for the next pandemic by bringing together scientists from different fields.
Crick scientist’s work to tackle future pandemics mainly focuses on three areas – improving our understanding of the biology that underlies infection and the immune response, tracking new variants as they occur, and translating this research into new treatments and vaccines.
Discovery science: improving our understanding of immunology and virology
“During the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, we were extremely fortunate that scientists were able to create an effective vaccine so quickly,” says David LV Bauer, head of the Crick’s RNA Virus Replication Laboratory. “But this speed isn’t guaranteed for future pandemics. In the event of a new pandemic viral variant emerging, we would be much better prepared if we understood what makes an effective immune response to vaccines, why viruses are more dangerous to different groups of people, and why some viruses and variants cause more severe disease than others.”
To answer these questions, researchers at the Crick and the UCLH NIHR Biomedical Research Centre set up the Legacy Study, through which they can proactively track people to establish how factors like age, sex, ethnicity, and medical histories, affect the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Legacy is now part of the international WWW Consortium, which brings together three studies of healthy adults in West Africa, the West Indies and West London. Even though there are similarities between the populations in the three locations, like overlapping genetic ancestry and common vaccines, COVID-19 has shown dramatically different outcomes in each location.
The WWW team hope to understand the factors that affect immunity to SARS-CoV-2 variants. The consortium plans to use its finding to inform future pandemic response globally, especially in regions currently underserved by both research and virus surveillance capacity.
“Armed with this biological understanding of different viruses and how our bodies respond to them, we could be more targeted and also more equitable in our approach to vaccination and treatment,” adds David.
Global surveillance: tracking new virus variants
The Crick is home to the Worldwide Influenza Centre, one of six WHO Collaborating Centres in the world responsible for analysing influenza viruses circulating in the human population as part of the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response (GISRS) System.
The team analyse flu samples from all over the world. They monitor changes in the circulating viruses to inform the WHO’s recommendations on which seasonal viruses to vaccinate against, and the centres also identify potentially pandemic variants.
This surveillance and analytical expertise is being extended through a newly formed COVID Surveillance Unit at the Crick. The team of specialist COVID-19 researchers run a one-of-a-kind system at the Crick which analyses thousands of SARS-CoV-2 samples simultaneously. The team can test treatments and vaccines against a bank of different virus variants quickly and accurately.
Nicola Lewis, who is director of the Worldwide Influenza Centre at the Crick, says that effective flu and virus surveillance can’t just focus on strains already circulating in humans.
“The future of viral surveillance is in the ‘one health’ principles – research that recognises the impact of globalisation, and that human health is closely connected to that of animals and our environment,” says Nicola.
“We’ve seen the impact of viruses jumping from animals to humans with the COVID-19 pandemic and we’re currently looking at the potential threat that avian flu could pose. We can’t say for sure where the next pandemic will arise from, but strengthening surveillance capacity and information sharing across borders among both our partners in GISRS and in animal health, will help us stay one step ahead and hopefully recognise potential threats before they become too serious.”
Applying our research: developing vaccines and treatments
Staying ahead of potentially pandemic variants is key to developing vaccines and treatments, according to Emma Wall, UCLH infectious diseases consultant and senior clinical research fellow for the Legacy Study at the Crick.
“Everything we do needs to come together to inform vaccine design and treatment strategies,” adds Emma. “Understanding exactly who’s at risk and how best to protect them is the best way to avoid unnecessary deaths and ensure that protection is fair and equal across vulnerable populations globally, not just here in the UK.”
Emma’s team are laying the groundwork for a fast response. As active coronavirus surveillance could slow down in the years following the COVID-19 pandemic, studies like Legacy will enter a ‘sleeping protocol’ where processes are recorded in detail and plans are made for how to start it up again extremely quickly if needed, and even adapt it to different types of pandemic threats.
“We have to carry forward lessons from the last pandemic so we’re not starting from scratch next time.”
“Science is absolutely international”
After hearing about the Crick’s global research connections, Sir Chris Whitty, said: “What’s clear from this visit is that science is absolutely international and without that it would be much less than it could be.”
At the end of the visit, Dr Tedros set Crick scientists a unique challenge – to come back to the WHO with a proposal for a new project that researchers and the WHO can collaborate on and implement to continue contributing to global health.
Dr Tedros said: “WHO is keen to continue its strong collaboration with the Francis Crick Institute and to identify innovative projects in science and health that we can work on together to make a difference in people’s lives.”