Aled Edwards Structural Genomics Consortium
Aled Edwards
Chief Executive - Structural Genomics Consortium

COVID-19 Research: Vaccines, Genomics & Open Science

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Takeaways

  1. The Canadian rapid research response to COVID-19 is a result of the investments over the last three decades in genomic and bioinformatic technologies.
  2. Canada needs multiple contingency plans to prepare for the potential eventuality that there will be no vaccine for COVID-19.
  3. Canada should not shy away from taking a proactive, top-down approach to addressing this pandemic and pandemics in the future.

Action

Economic systems, social constructs and institutional incentives all create barriers to open science, which prevents the research community from developing vaccines that are crucial to human health. The level of collaboration currently being witnessed within the research community might serve as a catalyst of change towards better open science practices.


When Might We See a COVID-19 Vaccine?  

Everyone is keen that there be a vaccine, and we are all hopeful. I do not think we have ever seen such a mobilization of intelligence towards making a single product, but we also have to be realistic. We have been trying to make an HIV vaccine since the mid-80s with no success. We have been trying to make a Hepatitis C vaccine with no success. 

The proper response is to plan for no vaccine and to make contingency plans expecting that there will not be a vaccine. 

The data for coronavirus in animals and in people show that it is not a virus that induces strong immunity, and while some of the current vaccines and trials are looking pretty good, I think the proper response is to plan for no vaccine and to make contingency plans expecting that there will not be a vaccine. Even if there is one, it will not come for a few years—so we will live in a two-year, no-vaccine land. But honestly, if it were me, I would plan for no vaccine and then when one happens to come all the better. Even if one comes, not everyone can take a vaccine, vaccines do not work in everybody and it is hard to distribute them. We are going to need alternative approaches even if there is a vaccine, but that is not a certainty.  


What If There Is No Vaccine?  

If we assume that there will be no vaccine, we have to have contingency plans. If you look at other viruses, what has kept them under control is antiviral drugs. HIV has gone from a disease that kills people to a chronic disease. We also have to worry about accessibility, because it is not enough that the drugs exist; everyone on the planet has to have fair access to them. That is one contingency plan. How do you make antiviral drugs and ensure that everyone in the world has access to them? 

We also have to worry about accessibility, because it is not enough that the drugs exist; everyone on the planet has to have fair access to them.

The second contingency plan is to make sure we test. We are flying blind; we do not know where the disease is, and we do not know the spectrum of clinical phenotypes. We really need to know who has the disease, how long you are shedding the virus, and if you get immune once you have had it. Can you get infected again? We cannot make public policy decisions without any of that data and we need to test, test, test. Then finally we are going to need to have interesting ways to socially track who talked to who, because if we do find that there is a break-up, we need to work to contain it as quickly as possible. That is going to be data driven.  

I would remind Canadians, though, that we have it easy. This will kill hundreds of thousands in the developing world, and we live in an affluent country. We have to think about that now. It’s not just about us. This is going to be tragic in developing nations, and we have to focus on that.   


What Is Genomics and Why Is It Important in Fighting COVID-19? 

Genomics is the concept of looking not only at a single gene, but all the genes in all the organisms. When you talk about the genetic sequence of a virus, it is the sequence of that one virus. If you talk about the genomics of COVID-19, it is how the virus evolves. It’s looking at how the Washington virus is a little bit different from the Ontario virus, and how they came to be like that. That is what the concept of genomics is.  

In the last 20 years, through consistent investment in genomic science, we have created the infrastructure that was turned on a dime to tackle the COVID-19 problem.

The use of genomics in combatting or even learning more about COVID-19 has been quite remarkable. This is an instance where it is not all-hands-on-deck, let’s invent something. In the last 20 years, through consistent investment in genomic science, we have created the infrastructure that was turned on a dime to tackle the COVID-19 problem. It is super important for people to realize that our rapid response to COVID was only because we had been heavily investing in these technologies for decades. 

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What Is Bioinformatics and How Does It Help Our Research Community?  

Bioinformatics is a super interesting field. It is the science of studying the data of biology, and one of the most significant contributions so far is the ability to trace the evolution of these viruses. Who caught it from whom? And how is the virus evolving? That involves looking at a sequence of letters—hundreds of thousands of bases, hundreds of thousands of letters—and looking for one or two differences, and how those one or two differences change. That obviously takes a lot of computer power, but again, the uses of technologies that we’ve developed over 20 or 30 years of studying genomics can be turned on a dime to study COVID-19.  


How Important is Collaboration Among Scientists and Industry?  

The world is collaborating to try and tackle the COVID-19 problem at many levels, and it has many facets of collaboration. One is between the scientists—and honestly, scientists, particularly at universities, do not know any national borders. We always collaborate internationally. The challenges come between countries. We have seen an unfortunate sense of nationalism occurring across the world, and that has been a barrier to collaboration. 

Scientists, particularly at universities, do not know any national borders. We always collaborate internationally.  

The other interesting barrier that is temporarily down is between the public and private sectors, where the concept of COVID-19 is such a disaster to the economy that financial gain is being slightly set aside to tackle this common problem. What is really interesting is the willingness of the public and private sector to work with one another to tackle this problem.  

My consortium is funded half by industry and half by governments and foundations. Daily I deal with at least 10 large pharmaceutical companies, and I can tell with absolute certainty that every scientist and every one of those companies is desperate to try to help. And senior management at those companies is desperate to make a difference. I’m not naïve, this is not going to continue past COVID-19 because it is a competitive world, but right now it is really nice to see that these industry scientists who are parents and members of society like us are doing everything they can to try and help.  


What Is Open Science and Why Do We Need It In the Approach To COVID-19? 

Open science is an interesting term, because it means many things to many people. At the most fundamental and 30-year-old definition, once you have accomplished your science experiment, you share the data with people. The most extreme version of open science is to share your experiments as you are doing them. And then the ultimate manifestation of open science is not to think about putting any restriction on use, including patenting.  

What we are seeing in the world in the last five years is different people taking different approaches to open science. We happen to take the latter approach—we are at the most extreme version of open science. But with COVID-19, we’re seeing more organizations and governments turning to our version of open science and throwing away their former worries. Now it is, “Of course we should be sharing.” Of course, we should be, because it is a crisis. It’s interesting because one year from now, I’ll go back to those same people and say you don’t think the parents with the child who is dying of cancer, you don’t think that’s a crisis too? Why don’t we share there? Why only when it’s a big virus? Why not for Alzheimer’s? The moment a family is looking after an elderly parent with dementia it’s a crisis for them, right? I think there will be a rethink of the values of society, how we invent medicines, and how we should balance medicines as a human right and product. Maybe the pendulum will swing. I live in a dream. 


What Are the Barriers to Open Science? 

Barriers to open science are obviously institutional and incentives, because when COVID-19 came, they all went away. Obviously, they are a construct of how we organize science and how we think about medicines. Society has left the discovery of medicines, in a tactical move, to industry because it is expensive. As a consequence, industry is going exactly as it should in the context of the economy—it’s trying to make a profit. And sometimes, that profit leads to high prices because they need to recoup their investment, but society says, well, I don’t want high prices. You can’t have both. If you want to create a sector of the economy that makes money, you can’t say stop and say don’t make money.  

On the one hand you are told to create knowledge, and on the other hand we say “keep that knowledge secret.”

The barriers in academia are different. In academia, you get promoted on prestige, and prestige comes with keeping secrets. If you want to be the first to discover something, people think that you need to keep secrets so that nobody else finds out. Universities are incentivized to patent as well. Our basic function is to create knowledge for mankind, but there is this insidious little part of the university system where the governments fund us and tell us that we should protect our ideas. So now you have a sort of conflict inside the university, where on the one hand you are told to create knowledge, and on the other hand we say keep that knowledge secret. And both, evidently, are for the public good. 

When you ask about the barriers to open science, there are these series of economic constructs, societal constructs, societal incentives and institutional incentives that all kind of conspire against sharing. At the end of the day, we do not have drugs for Alzheimer’s in large part because of this whole construct. I think it needs a rethink, and maybe the COVID-19 crisis can be a catalyst for change.  


What Are You Currently Working on in Anticipation of the Next Pandemic?  

We set up a non-profit called VIMY in order to coordinate—together with all the players around the world—an effort to make antiviral drugs to put on the shelf in anticipation of the next pandemic. You can ask why no one has done this before, and it is a good question, but largely it is because there is not commercial incentive to make medicine for a virus that may never exist. Who would invest in that, right? 

It needs to be done under a different business model, and we believe this non-profit model—which has been used for malaria and other diseases—is the right one. We are just setting up that project now and it will work with industry and will practice our version of extreme science. We will not offer patents, we will create medicines as a public good so that we can break glass in the next pandemic, take it out, and put it into use. 


What Policy Lessons Must the Canadian Government Learn from This Crisis? 

I think lessons for our policymakers are to take a more proactive approach to prevention. In Canada, we have a distributed system of science funding where it is slightly balkanized. There is no “czar” of pandemic preparedness. The different branches of our government sometimes do not communicate. And it is nobody’s fault—it is just a function of setting up the system that way. 

We do not tend to do top-down things in Canada, we tend to shy away from that, but in instances like this that is probably a mistake.  

You can see that the Americans have similar problems, but they have such a bigger budget that it does not matter. Each of their individual silos can make a big impact. In Canada, we do not have that luxury. We need to be cleverer. We did it with PHAC and we did a phenomenal job, and I think on the science or tactical side we can do a better job of organizing the smart people we have and drive towards a conclusion. We do not tend to do top-down things in Canada, we tend to shy away from that, but in instances like this that is probably a mistake.  


What Is Something You Find Fascinating About COVID-19? 

The neat thing to me about COVID-19 and many of the other viruses that have emerged is the fact that the close proximity to mammals—monkeys and people, or chimpanzees and people from whence HIV, Ebola virus and this virus came—comes from the intermingling between humans and animals. It says to us that we have to be prepared for it in the future, because as people and animals juxtapose, these viruses will hop from one to another. 

The other interesting thing is that it is actually not the virus that is killing people, it is the human response. I think science is going to get at that. It’s very clear in animals. For example, if you give the virus to one strain of mice and they all live, but another strain that is almost genetically the same all dies, then the problem is not the virus—the virus could be the same. There is something in the DNA of the person that says live or die, and we will be able to figure that out. We have had enough people infected to divide them into two groups: live or die. But now, if we get the DNA sequence of everyone who has lived and the DNA sequence of everyone who had to go into intensive care, there will be clues. From those clues, we will be able to figure it out. I am kind of hopeful about that. 


Is There a Silver Lining to this Crisis?  

What I think will hopefully be the positives that come out of this, is it is the first time the global economy—our health infrastructure—has had a stress test. It’s revealed a number of inadequacies in our system. It’s revealing the inadequacies of the global supply chain model, and it is revealing the inadequacies of concentrating key parts of our economy in three places. I think that potentially that is going to mean that we pay more for stuff, but at the same time, that will mitigate these unfortunate consequences of how the world has evolved—and I think that will be for the better.  

I also hope that we think about the future more. As much as this virology disaster is affecting society, it is nothing compared to what climate change is going to do. Our young people are depending on us. If we do this for COVID-19, why can’t we do it for climate? Right? And more than us depends on us fixing the climate thing. Again, I am hopeful that the lessons learned extend beyond health and into other facets of our society. 

Aled Edwards, Structural Genomics Consortium
Aled Edwards
Chief Executive - Structural Genomics Consortium

Bio: Dr. Aled Edwards is the founder and Chief Executive of the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC). Dr. Edwards leads the six SGC laboratories from the SGC headquarters in TorontoAled Edwards is a Professor at the University of Toronto, Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford and Adjunct Professor at McGill University. 

 

Organization ProfileThe Structural Genomics Consortium is a research organization that has been a pioneer for open science, particularly in the areas of protein science, chemical biology and drug discovery.  The SGC has six laboratories and is a collaborative effort from industry and academic scientists. It accelerates research by making all of its research output readily available for the international research community.