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ISGlobal's Contribution to the Fight Against COVID-19

Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 - NIAID NIH
Photo: Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 - NIAID NIH

(Updated 28 August 2020)

The SARs-CoV-2 virus has rocked our society to the core and presents a serious threat to the health of the global population and economy. Given our expertise and experience in research and knowledge translation, the Barcelona Institute for Global Health has made the fight against COVID-19 a priority line of action. In addition to adopting appropriate measures to protect the health of its own personnel, including expatriate staff, and providing them with the information they need, ISGlobal is focusing on responding to the pandemic with a strategy that encompasses a number of lines of action.

Research: A Key Element of the Response and Future Learning

While caring for those affected must be a priority at this time to reduce the impact of the pandemic on human lives, science will play a key role in finding a way out of the current crisis. With this in mind, ISGlobal’s scientific team have ramped up their efforts to coordinate various lines of research on COVID-19. The following are some examples of the lines of scientific work now underway:

Epidemiology

ISGlobal has undertaken a series of serological studies among the healthcare personnel working at the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona. The SEROCOV-1 project, led by researchers Alberto Garcia-Basteiro and Carlota Dobaño, developed a study that measured SARS-CoV-2 antibody prevalence in a representative sample of healthcare workers in a country with a high burden of COVID-19. Findings from this and other studies enable researchers to determine the staff's exposure level and serological response to SARS-CoV-2 over time.

We are also involved in a population-based serological study in Catalonia, which is being undertaken in collaboration with the Agència de Salut Pública de Catalunya. The objective in this case is to investigate transmission patterns, groups affected and the development of herd immunity. This research is providing information about the role of asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic cases in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 within the community and to ascertain the likelihood of herd immunity developing to a sufficient degree to protect vulnerable individuals in future SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks.

Moreover, in June the Germans Trias i Pujol Research Institute (IGTP) and two research groups from ISGlobal launched COVICAT, a project that aims to assess the impact of COVID-19 on a population of 24,000 volunteers in Catalonia . In addition to analysing the incidence and prevalence of infection in the Catalan population over a 12-month period, this epidemiological study is exploring a wide range of factors, including environmental, climate- and lifestyle-related factors associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection and immunity, as well as the various ways in which confinement measures have affected the population.

Finally, ISGlobal has undertaken a seroprevalence survey in Cendea de Cizur, a municipality near Pamplona. The study will provide valuable data on the impact of COVID-19 in this municipality by determining rates of seroprevalence in an age-stratified population sample.

Clinical Research

Much of the ISGlobal’s clinical research effort worldwide is focused on testing antivirals and other existing antimicrobial agents. Some examples are a study of hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic against COVID-19 for high-risk healthcare workers, led by Jose Muñoz. Additionally, the COVID-PREG study, led by Clara Menéndez, is testing the efficacy of the same drug for preventing SARS-CoV-2 infection and reducing COVID-19 disease severity during pregnancy. Since mid-March 2020, ISGlobal and Hospital Clínic of Barcelona have been participating in a multi-site clinical trial of remdesivir (an anti-Ebola drug) being carried out at more than 50 sites worldwide.

In addition, researcher Carlos Chaccour is leading a pilot study called SARS-CoV-2 Ivermectin Navarra-ISGlobal Trial (SAINT), which aims to evaluate the potential of ivermectin, a well-known antiparasitic drug, to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

At the same time, ISGlobal has initiated studies that analyse the symptomatology of COVID-19. The CORSAIR project, for example, aims to identify the clinical, biological, and imaging factors that increase the risk of severe respiratory failure from COVID-19.

Technology

ISGlobal is working with other research groups to develop technological solutions that will facilitate the task of tracking COVID-19 cases and their contacts. In the interest of stabilising the health system and the economy, our team is also participating in the CoViproteHCt study, the aim of which is to develop tests capable of identifying people who are already immune to SARS-CoV-2 and therefore protected against re-infection.

In addition to the projects now underway, another 45 are currently seeking funding.

Care: The Top Priority

One of our top priorities, as an organisation closely linked to two major hospitals (the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona and Hospital del Mar), is the support of these institutions. As well as providing technical assistance to both hospitals, our team is also working with the two bodies responsible for coordinating medical care and public health in Catalonia: the Agència de Salut Pública de Catalunya (public health) and the Agència de Qualitat i Avaluació Sanitàries (responsible for quality in healthcare and public health). Current efforts are focused in particular on contact searching and the investigation of outbreaks. The overarching priority is to save lives and care for those in need.

Knowledge Transfer

Antoni Trilla is representing ISGlobal on the COVID-19 Scientific and Technical Committee tasked with advising the Government of Spain during the emergency. Dr Trilla is a Research Professor at ISGlobal, head of the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Barcelona and one of the six members of the expert committee.

The Policy and Global Development team at ISGlobal is continuously reviewing the new data on COVID-19 and—working closely with members of the research staff—is drafting reports for the appropriate authorities to facilitate policy decisions and the decision-making process. The team is in constant contact with the relevant authorities and decision-makers.

With the aim of contributing to the safe and progressive exit from confinement, ISGlobal has also begun publishing a collection of policy documents. The series, which already has19 issues published, gives voice to experts who identify and address some of the great challenges of the current crisis from a research perspective.

The Communications department is focusing on the creation and publication of new evidence-based content on all the channels used by the organisation.

This includes weekly updates on the latest scientific discoveries on the coronavirus, a special report on COVID-19, which is complemented by other formats, including videos, opinion articles and twitter threads. At the same time, an in-house team of experts is working to ensure maximum outreach in the general population with a focus on communicating the main messages to the media and by means of interviews and informative articles.

ISGlobal experts also are delivering video-streamed seminars, such as the webinar series that began on April 28, COVID-19: The Day Before; the session streamed on 20 March, COVID-19: Pandemic, Socio-Economic Impact and Communication, by Rafael Vilasanjuan, Jose Muñoz and Joan Bigorra; and the one streamed on 5 March, Coronavirus: Myths and Facts, by Antoni Trilla.

ISGlobal has also been involved in the development of EpidemiXs, a web site providing quality information on COVID-19 that has reached a wide audience and become a crucial tool for communicating information on prevention and counteracting fake news.

International Cooperation

ISGlobal provides technical support through its platforms to the different solidarity entities in need. Additionally, ISGlobal is collaborating with the United Nations Development Programme to analyse the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean while advising different countries on their de-escalation processes.

Initiatives in Partnership

Another initiative that ISGlobal is involved in is The Day After, which was launched on 23 March 2020. The aim of this new platform, set up by an alliance of several partners, is to optimise our capacity to learn from the current crisis and situation of confinement in scientific, economic and social terms. In view of the seriousness of the COVID-19 crisis, the Institute has decided to redirect the resources dedicated to other ongoing initiatives to the situation currently affecting our country and society as a whole. Measures taken to slow the spread of infection and flatten the curve of the epidemic are having profound effects on our society and economy as well as on the environment, and now is time to measure and analyse these changes and their repercussions. The aim of “The Day After” is to "learn from the crisis during the crisis". The platform brings together individuals and organisations from various sectors: the field of science, private enterprise, the public sector and civil society. It will provide an important forum for discussion on topics closely related to the work of ISGlobal—everything from development cooperation to the environment—and will allow us to consider possible future developments using a rigorous approach in order to meet the challenge of making the changes needed to build a stronger and more sustainable society.

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