Université de Strasbourg

Virologist João Marques responds to the COVID-19 epidemic

01 May 2020

These are unprecedented times for the world, including for those working in research. Research laboratories have had to close, with experiments aborted or postponed, tissue collection and analysis to support clinical trials halted, and samples frozen without knowing if they will be usable once thawed. Certain labs are still active, having shifted their focus to research on the new coronavirus. Most are empty, however, often with only one person allowed to enter each day for essential tasks such as keeping cell lines or research animals alive. Most of their researchers are working from home as far as possible, reading papers and analysing data.

Yet other laboratories have found a new role in the Covid-19 crisis and are very busy, even if not exactly with research. The lab of USIAS Fellow João Marques at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil normally works on insect antiviral immunity, mainly in mosquito vectors that transmit human viruses such as Dengue and Zika. Now, it is helping the state government in Minas Gerais with Covid-19 diagnostics. Here João Marques, who spends a large part of his time at the Institute for Molecular and Cellular Biology (IBMC) in Strasbourg during his fellowship, shares some of his experiences and observations about the current crisis and its impact on virus research.

Research laboratories transforming into test laboratories

“The local agency in my home state in Brazil was overwhelmed and could not process patient samples fast enough. When I found out about the limited testing that was being done due to lack of manpower and infrastructure by the state, I contacted people that I know at the state secretary of health. Several other labs from the university had contacted them, and these contacts resulted in an official collaboration with all laboratories being directly coordinated by the office of the Dean for Research.”

Joao Marques

“My laboratory is now one of eight in the region that is involved in receiving and processing patient samples to run the diagnosis to detect the viral RNA. Once the university got involved, an agreement was signed with the state in the name of each lab involved. As a first step, all labs were certified by the state secretary of health so as to be able to issue diagnostic tests. Several scientific laboratories are doing the same in other states, basically following previous experiences acquired during recent Zika and yellow fever outbreaks in Brazil. There is no coordination between states but we do exchange information at the laboratory level.”

“The state and the university acquire the necessary reagents from companies whose tests had been certified by the Ministry of Health, mostly using the CDC – the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - protocol. The university also agreed to cover the costs of equipment use and maintenance during this period, from an emergency budget. Each laboratory agreed to contribute with labour without being compensated.

Policy responses to the crisis

“It is devastating to see what is happening now with the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus, resulting in so much serious illness and so many deaths, and causing tremendous economic and societal pain. I feel strongly that government responses should be thoroughly science-based, which means that policy-makers and also citizens will have to trust experts and accept recommendations based on knowledge that they may not fully understand. Unfortunately that is not what we see happening everywhere.


“We have a complete lack of leadership at the national level in Brazil at the moment, with local governments making the hard decisions. The lack of centralised decision-making is problematic in many ways since it creates competition for resources and a sense that each city has to take care of itself. Some states have been more forceful in dictating guidelines, but the federal government has been completely absent and - in many cases - working against states. My feeling is that centralised decisions like those taken in France, with clear directions given by the government and by the President during his televised addresses, reinforce a sense of unity. This is very important in a crisis like this. In contrast, provoking divisions inside the country like the president of Brazil has done is the worst strategy I can think of.”

The effects of the pandemic on research programming

“I hope that the current crisis will strengthen the view that funding science is crucial not only at the international level but also locally, since each country has unique variables that need to be understood and addressed at the local level.”

mosquitos in tube

“An emergency like Covid-19 tends to suck up all the attention, understandably. We need to get a hold on this. Unfortunately, the risk is that for a long period of time much or all the funds for research will be concentrated on a single subject. This can have unintended consequences such as draining funds from other important areas. For example, in my state in Brazil, at this moment we have at least 20 confirmed cases of Dengue for each case of Covid-19. An estimated 390 million people per year get infected with Dengue worldwide, of which about 100 million people get sick, and up to 25,000 die. These numbers are increasing rapidly due to climate change and urbanization.”

bat in hand

“Another unintended effect of the current crisis may be that the importance of basic research will be diminished. We know that applied and clinical sciences cannot move without basic science, but for governments and the general public it is sometimes hard to view basic science as an important area of investment. They want concrete results and they want them fast. In the case of my laboratory for example, we have been studying virus diversity in mosquitoes for some time without really having much funding or attention. I certainly think that monitoring the circulation of viruses in animals is an important investment. Viruses such as the new coronavirus, SARS, Zika, Ebola and many other agents circulated in animals before human outbreaks, and could provide an early warning system.”

Science-based policy

“I hope that the current crisis is strengthening the position of scientists and the importance of science; I think however, that this will be more the case in countries like for example Germany, where science was already given more importance. We need to be careful with how scientists are recruited to the process of decision-making, since this is sometimes based on politics and not science itself. Although any scientist can have views on Covid-19, very few actually have the expertise required to participate in the policy-making process.”

Virus testing lab

“It is important to make the general public more aware about viruses, what they are and how to protect yourself and others, because the general public, their decisions and behaviour, are a crucial factor in whether a virus spreads or not. But I feel that we need to have more coordination, because having too many scientists talking about Covid-19 is not a good idea. Policy-makers may be tempted to select what suits their own agenda. Too many voices might also make it easier for people who try to disseminate misinformation. We should defer to the specialists to talk about Covid-19 to avoid that our voices become mere noise.”

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