ASM COVID-19 International Summit Sets Research Priorities 

March 27, 2020

In an historic demonstration of solidarity and collaboration, the ASM Council on Microbial Sciences (COMS) hosted a remote international summit on COVID-19 on Monday, March 23, 2020. Amidst pandemic spread of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus, a distinguished group of microbiologists - expert virologists, infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists and clinical laboratory scientists - gathered via video conference to discuss one of the most pressing global threats of our time. A report from summit participants was published in mBio that evening, and a press conference was held the following day to share summit highlights with the public.
 
The tone, although sober, was auspicious. In a poignant opening statement, COMS Chair Michael Schmidt stated, “The only thing more contagious than a virus is hope. We are here to foster the collaboration of scientists across the globe to understand the virus and control it’s spread.” With that purpose in mind, the Council determined to answer the following key questions:
  1. What research is urgently needed to find solutions to the problem? 
  2. How can we coordinate efforts to fight this global threat? 
  3. What concrete steps need to be prioritized in order to accelerate research and slow the spread of the virus?
ASM Council on Microbial Sciences (COMS) hosts COVID-19 International Summit to better understand the virus and control its spread.

State of COVID-19  

Dr. Benhur Lee from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai delivered the “State of COVID-19” introduction. The severity of the problem was indisputable. Although the case fatality rate for COVID-19 varies from country to country, the virus is highly contagious, and it is spreading quickly. Global trends indicate that SARS-CoV-2 may reach 30-40% of the population, and its spread will not slow down without human intervention in the near future.
 
Human intervention methods include diagnostics, treatment and vaccination. The remainder of the summit was dedicated to coordinating local and global research efforts in these fields. 

Panel 1: Diagnostics 

Panelists: 

Dr. Alexander GreningerDr. Benjamin Pinsky, Dr. Arthur ReingoldDr. Kirsten St. GeorgeDr. Tara SmithDr. Gregory StorchDr. Elitza Theel 

Discussion: 

Diagnostic tests are powerful tools to fight COVID-19 and should be leveraged to help in this pandemic. Both viral RNA detection assays and serologic assays can be useful, but they don’t address the same questions. RNA detection assays are most useful for the diagnosis of acute infection, while serologic testing may help identify patients who are asymptomatic or immune to SARS-CoV-2. More details can be found in the accompanying mBio manuscript.

Action Items:

The fact that testing is not equitably available to all United States citizens is a persistent concern. There is clear disparity between the availability of testing in rural and urban settings. Without testing, populations may not realize the virus is in their communities and may not take social distancing seriously, potentially worsening the situation.
 
There is a need for standardized, quality testing to be made available across the country. It is important to provide regulatory clarity applicable to the current situations faced by clinical microbiology and public health laboratories so that quality testing for SARS-CoV-2 can be made available to those who need it. 

Panel 2: Treatments

Panelists: 

Dr. Ruxandra Draghia AkliDr. Becky DutchDr. Vineet MenacheryDr. Aaron SchmidtDr. Michael ShulerDr. Shmuel Shoham

Discussion:

Human convalescent plasma (HCP) treatment is an old method for prevention and treatment of infectious diseases. It is currently being evaluated for COVID-19, but whether or not it will offer protection from this virus is unknown. Clinical trials have been initiated by many academic institutions. If proven to be effective, HPC can potentially be scaled relatively quickly using the current blood bank structure.
 
Other treatments, such as remdesivir, hydroxychloroquine and monoclonal antibodies, are being evaluated but are also unproven. If shown to be effective, each will have its own limitations.

Action Items:

Scalability (ability to mass-produce the treatment for public dissemination) and affordability (ability of patients and healthcare systems to pay for therapy) must be considered for all treatment options. This will require coordinated data sharing and improved funding for COVID-19 research efforts.  

Panel 3: Vaccines 

Panelists: 

Dr. Paul DuprexDr. Amy L. HartmanDr. Florian KrammerDr. Benhur LeeDr. Kanta SubbaraoDr. Johan Van Hoof  

Discussion:

Identification of a COVID-19 vaccine will likely reduce disease burden, even if the initial efficacy is imperfect. Vaccine development is moving quickly, but availability of a clinically useful product will take time (12-18 months). 

Action Items:

The rate of vaccine development and testing will depend on partnerships with professionals from multiple disciplines. Consideration of social and ethical issues associated with COVID-19 vaccine distribution is important to the overall success of disease prevention, and historical lessons about preparedness must be heeded. 
 
Fifteen years ago, decisions about the development of SARS vaccines were based on epidemiologic data. When the virus was no longer a serious threat to society, vaccine development stopped. As a result, SARS-CoV-2 emerged in a population that was grossly underprepared. Development of a COVID-19 vaccine now will not only have protective implications in the present day, but also advance preparedness for future coronavirus outbreaks.

Moving COVID-19 Research Forward

When the summit concluded, this unprecedented day of collaboration afforded participants a common research agenda and renewed commitment to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The ASM COVID-19 International Summit resulted from the dedicated efforts of many solution-minded individuals including ASM CEO Stefano Bertuzzi, COMS Chair Michael Schmidt, COMS Vice-Chair Suzanne Fleiszig, and Summit Co-Chairs Esther Babady and John S.L. Parker. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this assembly. 
 
The mission of COMS is to support the work of ASM: 
  • Setting priorities for the Society.
  • Identifying upcoming opportunities in the microbial sciences.
  • Identifying scientific trends to ensure effective programs and scientific activities.

Author: Ashley Hagen

Ashley Hagen
Ashley Hagen is a science communications specialist at ASM.