Nature India | Indigenus

How coronavirus data from history is helping fight COVID-19

When a bunch of database experts peered through archival information on coronaviruses, they saw substantial data that could aid the world’s fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Satyavati Kharde and Poulomi Thakurdesai describe how a Springer Nature Experiments team quickly turned this data into a valuable resource for life science and biomedical researchers working on COVID-19.

Many of us had heard the term ‘coronavirus’ for the first time at the office lunch table. Our team lunches are unusual, discussing topics that range from evolution, to bodily functions to Bollywood. The scientific experts in the team were trying to explain how the coronavirus works, its relation to respiration and the conspiracy theories associated with it.

When we read about the first outbreaks, our natural reaction was – not yet again!  Another epidemic! We thought it would not cross the China borders and so we continued planning our upcoming travels.

Out of curiosity, we checked the Springer Nature experiments database – the largest database for life science protocols and methods – to see what content we had around past coronaviruses. We were pleasantly surprised to find a huge number of experiments such as detection of the virus, drug design, drug delivery, vaccine design and biochemical characterisation of coronaviruses that caused earlier contagions – the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) of 2002 and the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) of 2012.

Soon we realised that mankind was in the middle of a pandemic after centuries. In India, we entered the world’s largest ever lockdown in history, started working from home in this ‘new normal’ while continuing our virtual tea break conversations and getting a virology class where some of us non-scientists learnt for the first time that viruses are not exactly living beings!

At the same time, we began watching life science researchers and healthcare professionals, the traditional end users of our products, emerge as the heroes in the world’s fight against the novel coronavirus. These frontline COVID-19 researchers in India and across the globe were working tirelessly to develop new detection methods, new drugs and vaccines to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Lockdowns and a global emergency situation had added several challenges to the existing workflow for researchers in academia as well as in the industry.

Many of our friends were these scientists trying to look for solutions to halt the pandemic at various Indian and international institutes. In one of our casual discussions, some of these scientists talked about the tardy speed and the many challenges of research during the lockdown.

The inner scientist in some of our team members was itching to help ease out their problems. The question was, how? We started working on a workshop for life scientists (involving questions around the database, engineering, and user experience) to understand if there was anything we could do to decrease the challenges they were facing.

In no time, a large global team chimed in taking the challenge up on priority. In one frenzied week, we designed, tested, and pulled together a collection of more than 160 openly accessible protocols and methods on COVID-19 to help laboratory researchers in their work around the pandemic. The resource brought together content on the detection of coronavirus in various species, protocols on designing the vaccine, and understanding the biochemistry of viruses to design new drugs.

Working remotely – alongside sharing recipes and haircut tips – we create a digital interface to address the challenges around the scarcity of reagents and lack of information to develop detection tests for the novel coronavirus. In this interface, researchers can find detailed procedures on various detection techniques, such as RT-PCR, PCR, virus RNA purification, sequencing, and more. With the help of this information, researchers can compare the materials and methods before implementing them in the laboratory.

As we begin to feel a little fulfilled to have contributed our tiny bit in the global fight against COVID-19, this data explorers’ journey is far from over. We are constantly tweaking and scaling up this resource – for the researchers and by the researchers – as and when newer information emerges in the fast-evolving pandemic.

[Satyavati and Poulomi are part of the Springer Nature Experiments team in Pune, India.]

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