The event was the first of a series of three online seminars organized by FAPESP in partnership with sister agencies in Paraguay and Argentina, under the aegis of the Global Research Council (GRC), with the aim of providing opportunities for an exchange of experiences and cross-border collaboration (image: screenshot from the first webinar)
Published on 11/16/2021
By Maria Fernanda Ziegler | Agência FAPESP – Besides causing a great many deaths, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities and vulnerabilities that have long existed in the Americas. On the other hand, it has boosted the pace of scientific research. The challenges posed by the health crisis have forced governments, funders and academia to organize efforts to ensure the rapid development of ventilators and personal protective equipment, revamp healthcare systems, and test drugs and vaccines.
Some of these experiences were presented in three online seminars hosted by FAPESP in partnership with Paraguay’s and Argentina’s National Scientific and Technological Research Councils (CONACYT and CONICET respectively). The aim was to provide a forum for scientists to discuss their research with colleagues in neighboring countries, promote cross-border collaboration, and strengthen inter-agency networks in the Americas. The idea arose in the context of the Global Research Council (GRC), a virtual organization that comprises the heads of research funding agencies on all continents.
The first webinar, held on October 13, discussed research relating to health systems. The others, on November 10 and 11, focused on research infrastructure in general, and education. The topics were inspired by the United Nations Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 Recovery.
“Officials of the World Health Organization have often observed that the response of research funding agencies to the COVID-19 pandemic was not sufficiently coordinated and timely. This points to a need to establish stronger links among funding agencies and the research communities they work with, so as to improve the mechanisms and initiatives for collaboration in all regions,” Luis Eugênio Mello, FAPESP’s Scientific Director, said in his welcoming remarks. “The interplay between regional and global needs, which goes beyond the present COVID-19 crisis, is part of the discussion we want to instigate in this seminar with scientist colleagues in the Americas.”
Chile’s experience in combating the novel coronavirus was described in a presentation by Alexis M. Kalergis, Director of the Millennium Institute in Immunology and Immunotherapy, and a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. In his view, the pandemic showed how important it is for countries to produce their own vaccines. “In Latin America, only Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Mexico produce vaccines. In Chile, we’re starting a project to produce them as well,” he said.
A longstanding partnership with Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac for the supply of hepatitis vaccines favored negotiations on the purchase of its CoronaVac vaccine. Moving early on this front enabled Chile to achieve a full immunization rate of 88%, one of the world’s highest.
A consortium was set up involving government and academia to test the vaccine. “A Phase 3 trial of CoronaVac was held in Chile, enabling us to publish three scientific articles, and technology was transferred for local production of the vaccine,” Kalergis said. “We also conducted important research on the vaccine’s real-world effectiveness [and compared the results with those of the Phase 3 trial]. And we’ve embarked on a process to win approval for vaccination of children [from 6 months to 16 years of age].”
Angelica Jimenez de Samudio, a professor in the School of Medical Sciences at the National University of Asunción (FCM-UNA) in Paraguay, explained that the country’s largest-ever multicenter study was conducted to demonstrate the inefficacy of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
The Brazilian experience was presented by André Brunoni, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Medical School (FM-USP) and principal investigator for a survey of mental health during the pandemic. The survey was conducted in the city of São Paulo and involved 2,117 active and retired university staff between 50 and 80 years of age who are participants in the Brazilian Longitudinal Study of Adult Health (ELSA-Brazil). This study has been monitoring the overall health of 15,000 civil servants at six public universities and research centers since 2008. The survey was supported by FAPESP and aimed to compare mental health before and during the pandemic in both healthy subjects and people suffering from anxiety or depression (more at: agencia.fapesp.br/36327).
“We found that there were no changes in the prevalence of mental disorders before and during the pandemic. Symptoms actually decreased in some cases, but they increased in certain subgroups corresponding to almost 50% of the cohort. The process is dynamic, and we believe the trends could change in future,” Brunoni said.
Argentina was represented by Silvia Kochen, Director of the Center for Studies in Neuroscience and Complex Systems (ENyS) and the Epilepsy Center at Ramos Mejía Hospital and El Cruce Hospital in Buenos Aires. She explained that a network was created with information on the availability of beds in the area and hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
“This assured agility, gave crisis managers and health workers access to data on the spread of the disease, and permitted identification of problems in the health system. In Argentina, as in Brazil and other Latin American countries, the public health system is robust, although there are problems. The pandemic highlighted the importance of strengthening these systems,” she said.
Cesar Munayco, Director of Public Health Surveillance at Peru’s National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, predicted an epidemic of child anemia as one of the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. The prevalence of anemia among under-fives has been about 40% in Peru for some time, and has remained at this high level for lack of iron supplementation.
“This means we’ll have a major problem with anemia in young children in the near future,” he said. “We need to understand the impact the pandemic will have on people’s lives and on the health system. At the moment, we’re still focusing on coping with the pressure brought to bear on the system by COVID-19, but it isn’t the only disease we must deal with.”
According to Munayco, at-risk patients with existing disorders such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic diseases, and without access to health services during the crisis, are a major concern in Peru. “The hospitals closed their doors to these people. We’re currently working on a study of the social determinants of health and the impact of inequality. The idea is to use the findings in efforts to combat future pandemics,” he said.
In Mexico, which was also hard hit by COVID-19, an indigenous ventilator was developed at record speed thanks to collaboration among health centers, academia and a government agency.
“At the start of the pandemic, we listed solutions that we could develop in up to three months,” said Israel Mejia, Head of Electrical Engineering and Electronics at the Center for Engineering and Industrial Development (CIDESI), an important R&D unit of Mexico’s National Scientific and Technological Research Council (CONACYT). “They included a body temperature sensor, a mechanical ventilator, personal protective equipment and diagnostic tests. We worked with manufacturers, government and hospitals to achieve these objectives.”
A recording of the first episode of the Americas’ Regional Scientific Webinars on COVID-19 series can be watched at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zmrIajJQTc&t=8s.