At the end of November 2019, a new type of virus began to infect humans in China. The virus was named SARS-CoV-2 (acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus 2), and WHO started calling the viral illness COVID-19.
According to the models produced by Imperial College London and the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, the biggest wave of coronavirus will hit Europe in April and May. The impacts of the wave are already being felt. It has been reported that in Italy, about 500 people have died of the complications from coronavirus within a period of 24 hours.
Scientists have identified more than one thousand different viruses affecting humans. Many of them cause infections, which are normal biochemical reactions of the human body to the infectious agents. Thus, it was only a matter of time before a pathogen causing a serious infection such as coronavirus would appear. We are surrounded by a vast variety of microbiological life forms that are invisible to human eye. In fact, only two generations ago, tens of thousands of people were infected with viral diseases, such as measles and smallpox, every year.
There is still no treatment or vaccine for coronavirus and the measures now used are the same as during the Spanish influenza pandemic 100 years ago: schools and places of entertainment are closed and there are restrictions on people’s movements.
Smallpox is caused by the variola virus. Regular vaccinations against smallpox began in the 1950s and the disease has been practically eradicated from the world. Studying the behavior of viruses and developing treatments are long-term activities. When we are developing vaccines against new viruses threatening human lives and paralyzing societies, we rely on existing information produced by research.
Basic research helping us to prepare for crises requires sustained funding. Reactions to health crises cannot be based on agile on-demand business logic and we cannot start building the infrastructure when the crisis is already on.
Research infrastructures are places where virus data is stored and where it is available. These ecosystems consist of hardware, information networks, databases, documents and services. They form a global information exchange network and provide a basis for research cooperation at different stages across national borders.
The exchange of information must be carried out in a reliable manner. Experience has shown that a specialized organization, research infrastructure that collects, maintains, stores and combines findings produced by biological and medical research and data is a key actor in the overall process.. This data includes molecular biological information and the structures and functioning of medical substances as well as their safety.
Reliable international research databases include the European Nucleotide Archive (ENA), where the coronavirus genome is also available, and Universal Protein Resource (UniProt), which collects data on the functions of proteins, cell parts and organisms.
When researchers are developing a vaccine against coronavirus, they use open biological databases and data-intensive computing. CSC is a partner in this effort. It has opened a priority lane facilitating coronavirus research and provides access to supercomputing and management of data across national borders (European Data Space, Digital Europe).
A prerequisite for fast, knowledge-based decision-making and reactions is that the parties responsible for information (such as data controllers) make the information interoperable and machine-readable. Data is collected for such purposes as statistics, healthcare and decision making, but in a crisis, such data should also be made available for secondary purposes that differ from the original purpose (such as scientific research). Provisions on such applications are contained in the Finnish act on secondary uses of social and health data, which entered into force in spring 2019.
How should we prepare for future tsunamis that have similar impacts as coronavirus? Systematic collection of data, research, and maintenance of a data infrastructure containing information on viral and bacterial ecosystems would be the best way to manage risks. Investigational vaccines and medical substances could be developed more consistently to modulate discovered pathogens to be able to respond more quickly to a crisis. In the final analysis, even if we spent hundreds of millions of euros on this infrastructure and expertise, these sums would only be a fraction when compared with rapidly rising mortality rates and a prolonged and severe global economic crisis.
Diseases eradicated with vaccines (in Finnish)
Developing pharmaceuticals through computing (in Finnish)
Image: Adobe Stock
Table: Picture modified from publicly shared Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team article from https://www.imperial.ac.uk/
Published originally 23.3.2020.
Dr. Tommi Nyrönen leads a team of experts in the European Life Science Infrastructure for Biological information ELIXIR at CSC.