Diagnostics, vaccines and public policies have improved thanks to FAPESP-supported research on COVID-19
December 22, 2021
By André Julião | Agência FAPESP – Results of research projects conducted worldwide show that a rapid response has been one of the key factors in a country’s success in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve seen a return to normal in 2021, but 2020 brought important insights into what governments and states can do, what they should do, and what they have actually done,” said Elize Massard da Fonseca, a researcher at Getúlio Vargas Foundation’s São Paulo Business School (EAESP-FGV), during a webinar held on December 7. The event concluded the FAPESP COVID-19 Research Webinars series, organized by the Foundation in partnership with the Global Research Council (GRC).
The focus this time was the results of the COVID-19 fast-track call issued by FAPESP in March 2020, shortly after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the disease a pandemic.
Fonseca presented the findings of a project approved in the call and published in the book Coronavirus Politics: The Comparative Politics and Policy of COVID-19 (more at: agencia.fapesp.br/36329).
“It was a fast-track call, and the first proposal was effectively approved only four days after it was submitted. FAPESP approved a total of 60 projects in that call. In due course, it launched other initiatives. They were all highly successful, and several have made waves inside and outside Brazil,” said Luiz Eugênio Mello, FAPESP’s Scientific Director, in his opening remarks to the webinar.
The event was chaired by Marie-Anne Van Sluys, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Biosciences (IB-USP) and a member of FAPESP’s Adjunct Panel on Special Programs and Research Collaboration.
The projects presented to the webinar referred to vaccine development, scientific research infrastructure, immune response, diagnostic tests, mental health, molecular aspects of the disease, and public policymaking.
“We began with a strategy of developing self-assembling protein nanoparticles [SAPNs]. As the research progressed, we encountered difficulties but managed to surmount them, and decided to include other strategies,” he said.
Ferreira and his group are currently conducting animal trials to evaluate potential COVID-19 vaccines with the aim of developing more promising formulations. They are also working on gene-based vaccines and molecular vectorization, in which antigens are fused to proteins that target immune system cells.
Vaccine development was also the focus for Edécio Cunha Neto, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Medical School (FM-USP) and a researcher at the Immunology Laboratory of its Heart Institute (INCOR). He is one of several associated researchers for the project, which is led by Jorge Elias Kalil Filho, Professor of Clinical Immunology at FM-USP and Director of the Clinical Immunology and Allergy Laboratory at Hospital das Clínicas, the hospital complex run by FM-USP (more at: agencia.fapesp.br/36222/).
In a project led by Dario Simões Zamboni, a professor at the Ribeirão Preto Medical School (FMRP-USP), the team set out to understand the mechanism underlying inflammasomes, protein complexes that are activated when cells are infected by pathogens.
“Right at the start of the pandemic we began to see evidence of cytokine storms and inflammatory cell death, which led us to hypothesize that inflammasomes could be linked to the development of COVID-19,” Zamboni said.
The researchers recruited 124 patients via several collaborations for the study, which showed that inflammasome activation was far more intense in severe cases requiring mechanical ventilation. “According to our longitudinal analysis, the patients who died already had greatly increased levels of inflammasomes on admission to hospital,” he added.
Diagnosis and therapies
Ronaldo Censi Faria, a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos’s Center for Exact Sciences and Technology (CCET-UFSCar), presented three low-cost COVID-19 tests developed with FAPESP’s support. One is capable of processing 96 samples per hour (more at: agencia.fapesp.br/36279 and agencia.fapesp.br/37087).
The sensors are sufficiently sensitive to detect SARS-COV-2 in sewage samples. Studies conducted in São Carlos (São Paulo state) have shown that the viral load in these samples falls in step with the number of cases reported in the city.
Marcelo Lima, a researcher at Keele University’s Center for Glycoscience Research in the UK, spoke about a project led by Helena Nader, a professor at the Federal University of São Paulo’s Medical School (EPM-UNIFESP).
Lima is an associated researcher for this project and is studying the role of heparin, an anti-coagulant, in treating COVID-19. The group’s research has shown that the drug can reduce viral infection by 70% when administered to cells in vitro (more at: agencia.fapesp.br/33200).
José Luiz Proença Módena, a professor at the University of Campinas’s Institute of Biology (IB-UNICAMP), presented several studies conducted as part of a project led by him at the institute’s Laboratory of Emerging Virus Studies (LEVE).
For example, Módena and his group confirmed that SARS-CoV-2 can infect neurons, explained why COVID-19 is more severe in diabetics, developed a low-cost technique to display 3D images of the virus inside cells, showed that antibodies induced by a previous infection were less effective against the gamma variant, and demonstrated that vaccinated people could transmit the alpha variant.
The event also featured a presentation by Pedro Mario Pan Neto, a researcher at EPM-UNIFESP, on a study of mental health and wellbeing before and during the pandemic. The study was possible because the researchers, led by Eurípedes Constantino Miguel Filho, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at FM-USP, have been following a cohort of 2,511 children and adolescents since 2010 to analyze childhood psychiatric disorders. For the COVID-19 study, 75% of the participants answered questionnaires by telephone or smartphone app.
The study showed, among other findings, that “the financial impact of the pandemic affected more than half of this cohort [in terms of damage to their mental health and wellbeing]. Over 1,200 said the pandemic had had this financial impact on them,” Pan Neto said.
The last speaker was Paulo Roberto Bueno, a professor at São Paulo State University’s Araraquara Institute of Chemistry (IQ-UNESP), who presented the results of a study on label-free analysis of biomarkers for molecular diagnostics.
A recording of the event (in Portuguese) can be watched at: youtu.be/i0dPh4Kq4fM.
The other FAPESP COVID-19 Research Webinars are at: covid19.fapesp.br/webinars.
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