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Science takes on the virus

Federal call for proposals attracts 2,200 applications for research grants to study COVID-19

Léo Ramos Chaves

Ninety research projects dealing with the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic and its effects have been selected in a call for proposals organized by the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), in a collaboration with the Ministry of Health. The Federal grant program, the largest to date, will provide R$50 million in funding for the development of therapies, diagnostic tests, and vaccines; new technologies for the National Healthcare System (SUS); and prevention and control strategies for the disease. The large number of project proposals—2,219 in total—was unexpected and made the task of selecting applicants more complex than expected. For this reason, the final list of successful candidates was only announced on July 3, three weeks later than originally estimated. “The strong response from the scientific community reflects investments in recent years in training research groups all around the country,” says CNPq Chairman Evaldo Vilela.

Candidate projects were first shortlisted by a team of more than 1,000 advising experts, who assessed proposals on quality and feasibility. The top-rated projects were then examined by a panel of 38 evaluators, and 90 were selected for funding. Because the goal of the program was to provide an immediate response to the pandemic, priority was given to initiatives that were mature enough to deliver results in the short term.

Some proposed projects involve the use of artificial intelligence to improve efficiency in the COVID-19 response. A group of researchers at several institutions, led by economist Alexandre Chiavegatto Filho, a professor at the School of Public Health of the University of São Paulo (FSP-USP), will begin testing a system to estimate the risk that patients admitted to hospitals could be infected with the novel coronavirus. The new technology intersects information on sex and age and clinical data from blood tests. When a suspected COVID-19 case is admitted to a hospital, the system will automatically show the likelihood of the patient being infected. High-risk patients can be placed in isolation while samples are collected for testing. “We are concurrently working on system features to estimate the risk of infected patients progressing to more serious forms of the disease,” says Chiavegatto, who also heads the Laboratory for Big Data and Predictive Analytics in Healthcare (LABDAPS). With the grant funding, the group will assess their algorithm for effectiveness in a hospital setting in different regions of Brazil.

Another group, led by physician José Geraldo Mill, of the Department of Physiological Sciences at the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES), is attempting to develop a strategy for diagnosing COVID-19 more quickly and at lower costs using infrared spectroscopy. The team hopes to develop an artificial intelligence system capable of analyzing variations in the radiation spectrum when infrared light is beamed across molecules present in a suspected coronavirus patient’s saliva. The tool is being developed based on samples from patients admitted to hospitals in the Vitória Metropolitan Area and other parts of the state. “An infected patient’s saliva contains different molecular structures from samples provided by virus-free individuals, and this creates distinctive alterations in infrared radiation waves,” explains Mill. The researchers estimate that each test would cost between R$50 and R$75.

On another front, researchers in Santa Catarina will evaluate the biochemical pathways involved in the body’s response to the novel coronavirus. The goal of the project, another CNPq grant recipient, is to create a panel that correlates the clinical data typically seen in COVID-19 patients with the main genes expressed by the immune system’s white blood cells in response to infection by SARS-CoV-2. “We’re looking to create a tool that can determine each individual’s risk of death from the disease, and estimate how likely they are to require admission to an ICU [Intensive Care Unit],” says physician Felipe Dal Pizzol, a researcher in the Department of Medicine at Extremo Sul Catarinense University (UNESC), who is co-leading the project. “This way,” he says, “we hope to anticipate potential complications and respond more effectively by admitting patients early who, while not yet presenting with severe symptoms of the disease, are at a high risk of progressing to its more advanced stages based on their clinical data and chemical reactions in their systems.”

The amount of grant funding varies depending on the line of research and the project, from a minimum of R$50,000 to a maximum of R$2.5 million for clinical research. Of the 90 selected projects, 48 are in Brazil’s Southeast. Women form a majority of the 90 successful candidates: 51 projects are led by women researchers. Neuroscientist Fernanda De Felice, of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), hopes to identify molecular markers of infection or central nervous system inflammation caused by SARS-CoV-2. The project will be developed as a collaboration between De Felice’s group and Fernanda Tovar-Moll, who chairs a research and education institute sponsored by the private hospital network D’Or São Luiz. Data have been collected on 5,000 patients within the hospital network over the previous few months. “The first step will be to analyze blood or cerebrospinal fluid samples from patients with neurological alterations,” explains De Felice. The project will evaluate not only the acute effects from the novel coronavirus on the brain—an estimated 40% of hospitalized patients present with neurological changes—but also long-term sequelae. Patients will be followed up on three months and one year after hospitalization.

A group led by Gabriela Rodrigues Mendes Duarte, of the Institute of Chemistry at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG), will use its CNPq grant funding to develop a diagnostics kit capable of detecting the virus within the first days following infection. “We place nasal or throat swab samples,” explains Duarte, “on a microchip that uses colorimetric detection. If the virus is detected, the sample being tested glows fluorescent green.” The test will give results in less than two hours. Once proven, the technology will be transferred to a company interested in producing the test at large-scale.

Part of the grant funding for vaccine development and testing has been exceptionally awarded to projects that will only deliver results in the medium term, as the global race for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine will likely not produce one in time to stop the first wave of the pandemic. A group of researchers at the Butantan Institute, in São Paulo, will identify and test different candidate technologies for a vaccine against the novel coronavirus. This will inform Butantan’s broader strategy for creating technology platforms to produce vaccines. “These platforms can then be used to develop vaccines against different diseases by simply modifying genetic information or a protein to change the target. The few COVID-19 vaccines that are already being tested on humans were developed within existing platforms,” says biochemical and pharmaceutical engineer Renato Astray, a researcher at the Butantan Institute’s Multipurpose Laboratory, who is leading the project. Our efforts, he explains, will be dedicated to developing a second generation of vaccines against COVID-19. “We don’t know whether the vaccines coming out over the following months will be effective or whether they will produce a lasting immune response. We may need to continue developing more effective vaccines, and this is the horizon our project will explore.”

In the Federal District, researchers at the University of Brasília (UnB) are looking to track virus spread by monitoring sewer water. They hope this will enable early detection of transmission hotspots. Chemist Fernando Fabriz Sodré, a researcher at the UnB Institute of Chemistry who is leading the project, has previously collaborated with the local water and sewage utility and the civil and federal police to monitor sewer water for the presence of illicit drugs and metabolites, as a way of estimating the level of exposure to these substances. “When the pandemic broke out, we decided to adapt our line of research with assistance from colleagues at other departments,” says Sodré. A number of papers published in early March drew attention to the fact that RNA fragments from the novel coronavirus had been detected in stool samples even before they were detectable in patients’ upper airways. “Monitoring sewer water can help to anticipate potential patterns of virus spread,” says Sodré. Nearly all sewage produced in Brasília flows through treatment plants—15 of them—of which 8 were selected to provide samples. Samples will be collected on a weekly basis over the next two years. “It will be interesting to measure the effects of government strategies by analyzing sewage,” says Sodré, who now plans to expand his research to monitor the spread of other viruses and chemical toxins.