The COVID-19 pandemic as research driving force

The COVID-19 health crisis has temporarily affected people’s lives dramatically by changing jobs, education, research and entertainment since the beginning of 2020. However, some temporary solutions like teleworking and distance learning have led to more permanent changes which are likely to continue once the pandemic ends. The future that emerges from the health crisis is not a scene from a science fiction movie, but it is happening now! For example, it’s visible how the needs of using information and telecommunication technology as well as the concern of risking our health by using public transportation have fostered research in a few months.

Research culture is changing

The rapid sharing of the coronavirus genetic sequence worldwide enabled real-time progress in the understanding of the new COVID-19 disease and fostered an international cross-border mobilization of scientists in the public and private sector research to immediately start working on its identification.

What is clear from recent months is the value of a shared goal to bring people together especially within the research community. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the crucial need for international cross-border scientific collaboration to develop diagnostics, vaccines and treatments to tackle health emergencies, as well as the need for maintaining and supporting this collaboration and open access and exchange of samples, data and information on an ongoing basis, and not only during emergency situations.

John Ioannidis, Professor of Medicine and of Epidemiology and Population Health at Stanford University says that “before the COVID-19 pandemic, it had been painstakingly slow to make progress in research openness and reproducible research practices. The pandemic may help overcome some of this inertia by making an all too obvious case that unless we share maximally our data, methods, and tools, and unless we are fully transparent, we run the risk of being overwhelmed by tenuous, spurious or outright wrong, if not even fraudulent, information. In this regard, the retraction of major papers from top journals such as the Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine, was an eye-opener. Much needs to be done, but we need to grasp this unique opportunity to transform our research practices and overall investigative culture.”

Since the start of the outbreak, scientists have embraced new ways of working together at an unprecedented rate to answer the most pressing questions about COVID-19. It is characteristic that researchers and publishers pulled together to make the coronavirus-related research immediately accessible. In March 2020 more than 30 publishers committed to make COVID-19 content freely available and reusable.

Constantinos Demetzos, Professor of Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology of the National & Kapodistrian University of Athens says that “it could not be done differently, given the crucial situation and the effects on society and the economy”, noting the fact that within a few months the research on the vaccine made leaps and bounds and created know-how, which will allow scientists in the future to treat other diseases. What the research revealed during the pandemic period? “What becomes obvious from the latest updates on the development of vaccines is the effectiveness of combining the science of molecular biology with nanotechnology. In the case of SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, nanotechnology offers the nanotechnological platform (i.e. Lipid Nano Particles, LNP’s) which proves effective in carrying while protecting the bioactive molecule (i.e. mRNA). The pandemic spurred scientists from different disciplines to work together and to eventually bring important results such as the vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. In the current tragic pandemic context, the velocity of scientific networks appeared to be unprecedented and this led to important achievements for the scientific community. We come to witness the creation of big scientific databases and knowledge repositories due to the vast production of publications and the accumulation of knowledge coming both from clinical trials and from laboratory results. This knowledge will prove useful for future health research”.

New opportunities, non-visible before the pandemic crisis

Historical experience shows that a global crisis of this magnitude creates new opportunities for science and economics, leading – especially in the case of science – to roads that were not visible before. Dr. Alexandros Papaderos, Deputy Head Office for Research & Innovation, Head of Innovation, Technical University of Munich (TUM) claims that: In the corona crisis, which is characterized by uncertainties about the economic and social consequences, science is receiving a particularly high level of attention. Universities and research institutes have to use this chance to shape global developments such as technological leaps, new pandemics, other disasters and the foreseeable climate changes, socially, ecologically and economically sustainable. We should use this opportunity to be in a better position on many issues than before the crisis. The years before the crisis and especially the first few months of the crisis, have shown that start-ups and spin-outs are making important contributions to society being solution providers and innovation drivers. With a new speed and willingness to experiment, many innovative solutions were introduced into society and industry and positive experiences were made. The state and the established companies should use the know-how, the innovative services and the products of these young companies much more intensively in the future. In particular, when the economy becomes stronger and more sustainable after the corona crisis, then a more intensive paradigm shift will be necessary, not thinking and acting in silos of the different types of companies, but to strengthen the cooperation between different parts of the economy. The need for this has been shown at the latest by the current pandemic”.

“The biggest lesson that pandemic has taught us is the need to be prepared”, says the Vice President-elect of the European Research Council (ERC), Nektarios Tavernarakis, Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas and Professor of Molecular Systems Biology at the Medical School of the University of Crete, in Heraklion, Greece, talking to Greek press. “Take for example the RNA vaccines, which were recently developed and shown to be more than 90% effective. The technology used is based on more than 20 years of prior research. We wouldn’t have the capability to develop a vaccine within a few months without this technology. This exceptional feat of vaccine production within a few months is attributed to the long-term investment in frontier research”, claims Professor Tavernarakis adding that: “ERC focuses on supporting cutting-edge, blue skies research, precisely because it believes that without it, modern human societies are essentially defenseless and vulnerable against unpredictable threats. Recent events show clearly that we cannot afford, and should not be ‘unarmed’ in the face of a natural disaster or a new pathogen.”

Acceleration of digital services

The pandemic accelerated the creation in a short time of new digital services that facilitate everyday life but also create better conditions in work, economy and education. For George K. Karagiannidis, a Professor of Digital Telecommunication Systems at the Electrical & Computer Engineering Department of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, a leading scientist selected from Clarivate Analytics as 2020 Web-of-Science Highly Cited Researcher (for the 6th consecutive time) this is a new reality: “As an example, this reality is changing the way we have designed telecommunications networks so far, as capacity requirements are now being transferred from the business and school-university to our home, and this change refers to fixed as well as to wireless networks”. Also, he mentioned “the research during the pandemic period raised the need for an interdisciplinary approach and collaboration between the scientific fields of Medicine, Biology and Informatics. Without this cooperation it would not be possible in this very short period of time to understand the behavior of the covid-19, to closely monitor the pandemic and to take measures, but importantly to create vaccines.

His research team named “Wireless Communications and Information Processing (WCIP) Group” is recognized as one of the leading research teams in Europe in the field of Telecommunications and Signal Processing, and is active in two research areas, which are expected to have significant social impact as well. The first concerns technology trends towards the 5G and after 5G wireless networks, where his research concerns the development of new services and the improvements of the energy and data-rate performance of devices, such as smartphones, tablets and sensors. As an example, his team is one of the first in the world working on the utilization of indoor lighting as a wireless network, like WiFi. These systems are called LiFi and we are going to see them work soon, maybe in 2021. The second research area of his team concerns signal processing for biomedical applications. Here we will mention its contribution to the development of the next generation of Cochlear Implants for people with very serious hearing problems. In June 2020 he published the idea of the first exclusively optical (all optical) cochlear implant. The great advantages of this implant compared to the existing ones are the better quality of hearing, the minimization of the risk of damage to the auditory nerve and the lower energy consumption, which allows a longer life of the implant.

Professor George K. Karagiannidis adds that the technological changes that have taken place over the last 20 years, those during the pandemic crisis included, are unprecedented in human history. We live in this historical time, we are part of these events and for this reason we cannot understand the frightening magnitude of the changes that are taking place: “I am optimistic that the 4th industrial revolution will be for the human’s benefit. But at the same time, I am concerned about the great challenges and questions that arise. For example, I recently read a study in which it is estimated that 85% of jobs for 2030 have not yet been invented. So, how can a theory of economics and employment be developed today if we do not know the working model that will exist in 10 years? “and Professor Karagiannidis adds: today theoretical tools in philosophy, politics and economics to answer these challenges and questions do not exist, because any such theory cannot be grounded if it does not take into account the dramatic and rapid changes that are taking place in the field of technology, and especially in informatics and telecommunications. That is, today there is more than ever a need for interdisciplinary development of new theoretical tools, even between seemingly unrelated scientific fields, such as computer science, political science, economics and philosophy, between which until now there was no – or there is minimal – communication.”

Vasiliki Michopoulou

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