These first months of 2020 have witnessed the explosion of the Coronavirus COVID-19 epidemics. First reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019, it quickly spread in the province of Hubei and across the country with 292,142 confirmed cases globally so far and 12,784 deaths (WHO situation report 22 March 2020).
By Alessandro Marcello, ICGEB Group Leader, Molecular Virology
Notwithstanding the enormous effort of China to contain the infection, the virus is ramping up in several countries, with Korea closely followed by ICGEB Member States Italy and Iran.
A robust action must be taken to detect cases early, isolate and care for patients, and trace contacts to stop this virus from putting more lives at risk. Research is urged to quickly identify a protective vaccine and antiviral drugs.
ICGEB Trieste Headquarters are in the Friuli Venezia Region of Northern-Eastern Italy, an area in close proximity with the major epidemic clusters in Lombardy and Veneto. Since the first positive case reported on February 29, the numbers had risen to 22 by 6 March. ICGEB has immediately reacted and is active in supporting local health authorities for diagnostic procedures and has started research projects in the area of improved molecular and serological diagnosis, and of antivirals.
The precautions that each affected country is implementing include fast identification and isolation of infected people, quarantine of affected areas and measures to reduce the rate of transmission, including extreme measures, closing schools and universities. Simple hygiene precautions should be implemented such as frequent hand washing and elbow sneezing as recommended by WHO.
Currently, the test for COVID-19 is based on a real-time polymerase chain reaction procedure on reverse-transcribed viral RNA obtained from nasopharyngeal swabs. This test is specific and very sensitive but requires expertise in molecular biology and costly equipment not always available in resource-limited settings. This test determines the presence of the virus in the patient but does not reveal if someone has been infected previously and has already eliminated the virus. To understand the real exposure within the population, serological tests are urgently needed. These tests measure the antibody response to the infection, a “signature” that lasts for years and is the basis of any vaccine approach to confer protection.
Research on COVID-19 has just started. Major tasks include (i) finding a protective vaccine; (ii) finding first-line treatments by repurposing already known drugs developed for other diseases; (iii) understanding the mechanisms of virus replication and pathogenesis to finally obtain antiviral drugs. The counterattack has started and science will ultimately prevail.
The ICGEB is currently observing the recommendations by the Region to avoid large indoor gatherings. The ICTP, SISSA and the University of Trieste have also suspended lessons.
In the current health emergency, the ICGEB is implementing measures to help reduce the spread of the virus. In addition to avoiding large indoor gatherings, lessons, seminars, meetings and journal clubs have been suspended. Only critical activities in the labs are continuing, under the strict guidance of PIs, with limited numbers of people present.
Administrative and office personnel are working from home, to reduce the number of people on the premises, while ensuring, at the same time, business continuity.
All staff and visitors are invited to monitor updates, general guidelines, and recommendations available at the World Health Organization (WHO) website: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019
Guidance and assistance regarding COVID-19 can be sought by calling phone number 1500 (hotline of the Ministry of Health, also in English).
The latest information received from the relevant authorities that have been issued by the Italian Ministry of Health, the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) are attached in English and French.
Further updates will be posted as the situation evolves.