At the end of February 2020, the media were reporting alarming news that warned of the magnitude of the tragedy that was about to occur in China as a result of the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic. Back then, it seemed a long way off, an outbreak that perhaps could be contained. However, emergencies of different types, magnitude and scope were gradually activated across the globe until the very images we had witnessed elsewhere took hold in Spain at great speed, shaking the foundations of our society and daily lives. The last four weeks have transformed the capacity of people, services and society as a whole to operate and adapt. IRB Barcelona’s mission is to respond to unresolved diseases such as cancer and metastasis, alterations related to metabolism and aging, and rare diseases. We now also want to do our part in alleviating the health emergency caused by COVID-19 through various projects that we have launched during this confinement. This chronicle describes these weeks of change and emergency research against the clock at IRB Barcelona.
By mid-March, weeks of great uncertainty are perceived. The news warns of this and the authorities insist: social confinement (lockdown) is expected to be necessary. Given this scenario, the Management team at IRB Barcelona organises numerous meetings with the Group Leaders and those responsible for the Core Facilities to prepare an action plan regarding the feasibility of continuing work on the on-going projects in these unprecedented times—times in which the government is likely to limit the activity of many sectors and order the closure of educational centres and businesses that do not provide essential services.
As the Spanish government decrees a state of emergency for 15 days (which can be extended), IRB Barcelona’s laboratories design, in record time, tailor-made plans to mitigate the effect of the lockdown on science. Faced with this scenario (which may change), the ITS and Human Resources teams, among others, rapidly execute a plan to guarantee teleworking for as many IRB Barcelona employees as possible. In the laboratories and scientific platforms, small work teams are established that, under strict health and safety regulations, can guarantee the continuation of essential activities that require direct professional supervision.
The first week is a test of everyone’s capacity to adapt under pressure. In just a few days, the IRB Barcelona community has transformed the rooms of their homes into makeshift research and service offices, and their regular group meetings, department meetings and face-to-face briefings have become videoconferences in a swift immersion in online communication platforms. Science must go on.
Given the severity of the rise in infections and the large increase in deaths from COVID-19, government measures are tightened days later. At this point, IRB Barcelona has already made itself available to the authorities to cover any need that may arise in the face of the already declared pandemic. IRB Barcelona is forced to further restrict its activities, allowing only the most essential activities to continue under a strict safety protocol. Many units are already almost fully working from home (and in many cases with the challenge of simultaneously caring for families and even sick relatives). Some members of staff remain on the frontline to guarantee the operation of key scientific facilities and projects. And even under these conditions, IRB Barcelona staff finds time to collect medical material, which is donated to the Institut Català de la Salut to help alleviate the lack of material for those working in the public healthcare system. The work of these individuals at the frontline of the health crisis is, and will always be, widely applauded and respected by the whole of society.
In addition, IRB Barcelona joins the campaign contraelcoronavirus.org to ask for the support of society and individuals in the projects that are starting to take shape at IRB Barcelona to contribute to the fight against the pandemic. In one, the usefulness of drugs already on the market will be studied to stop virus reproduction in the human body. Another project seeks to develop a quick and simple diagnostic method for virus detection. Furthermore, a line of research is launched to develop a spray treatment for COVID-19. And a final project focuses on reducing mortality from COVID-19 by finding a treatment for its main cause of mortality: acute respiratory distress syndrome. We are not embarking on these projects alone but do so in collaboration with leading national and international research centres, technology centres, biotechnology companies, hospitals in direct contact with patients, and public administrations.
IRB Barcelona continues its activity, adapting to the unprecedented situation, and it does so in the midst of a panorama in which the Government of Catalonia makes an urgent appeal to research centres to analyse their capacity (in equipment, personnel, reagents, etc.) to perform 70,000 SARS-CoV-2 tests in three weeks. Some centres propose to collaborate on the immediate setup of a joint qPCR-based test facility. This is how the work node formed by members of IBEC, CNAG, and IRB Barcelona came about, all of them as part of the PCB node, and in collaboration with the PRBB node, led by the CRG. Under the coordination of Goretti Mallorquí, Head of Core Facilities, and Jorge Domínguez (Scientific Management Coordinator), protocols, and a list of specialized equipment available, as well as general action measures, are drawn up, thanks to the invaluable dedication of a technical team of qPRC experts from the three participating institutions. A call is also made for volunteers, and the biosafety measures are reviewed in order to prepare this new COVID-19 testing platform.
This third week, in which IRB Barcelona’s science continues remotely, marks the proud announcement of the award of a second ERC Advanced Grant to researcher Eduard Batlle for a new colorectal cancer project—his fifth ERC project and IRB Barcelona’s 20th. The initiative of IRB Barcelona’s Structural Bioinformatics and Network Biology Laboratory, led by Patrick Aloy, also comes to light, joining efforts with Amazon to develop a computational tool based on Chemical Checker technology to accelerate the search of drugs against COVID-19. Using artificial intelligence, this new tool aims to build a database of drugs that includes all the scientific results on the treatment of COVID-19 published to date, thereby providing researchers from around the world with an expanded portfolio of molecules with the potential to fight the disease.
The wheels are turning, tenacity is everything, and although time is pressing, we continue hand in hand along a steep and winding road. What these unprecedented and uncertain times are bringing to light is that, although neither society, nor IRB Barcelona nor its community can evade the sudden changes in the script of what is already called a "VUCA world" (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity), we can adapt to changing scenarios thanks to the people’s immense flexibility and determination. The exceptional teams at IRB Barcelona are showing that they are much more than just teams of talented professionals. Indeed, it is this joint strength, both in scientific and human terms, and this great capacity for teamwork that will allow us to get through this period of uncertainty and come out stronger on the other side, ready for the challenges that the future may hold. The IRB Barcelona community also deserves a loud applause.
About IRB Barcelona
The Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) pursues a society free of disease. To this end, it conducts multidisciplinary research of excellence to offer pioneering solutions to unresolved medical needs in cancer and other diseases related to ageing. It establishes technology transfer agreements with the pharmaceutical industry and major hospitals to bring research results closer to society and organises a range of science outreach activities to engage the public in an open dialogue. IRB Barcelona is an international centre that hosts 400 employees and more than 30 nationalities. Recognised as a Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence since 2011, IRB Barcelona is a CERCA centre and member of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST).