With the world in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, in April Horizon takes a step back to look at some of the challenges around sudden outbreaks of emerging diseases. We speak to virologist Prof. Marion Koopmans about the likelihood of future outbreaks of new diseases, what causes them and how to spot them before they appear. We speak to scientists who are helping to develop tests for Covid-19 to understand the challenges in coming up with an accurate and detailed diagnostic test for an entirely new disease. We talk to people working on coronavirus treatments about how to shorten the normally lengthy process of drug development. And we look into why diseases suddenly jump from animals, such as bats, into humans and the particular challenges of spotting and responding to these types of outbreaks.
What makes the Covid-19 pandemic so difficult to contain? Silent transmission by asymptomatic patients is partly responsible, but research emerging from Germany suggests the SARS-CoV-2 virus has developed a second impressive strategy for ensuring its success: the ability to establish two separate communities within a host – the first in the throat, the second in the lungs. Early colonisation of the throat is responsible for the dangerous lag between a person being infectious and the onset of symptoms.
A vaccine is likely to take at least a year. A new drug could be a decade away. Even with the world’s resources focused, treatments against a new disease are difficult to create from scratch. However, repurposing existing drugs for other conditions could provide a much-needed shortcut.
A team that has spent the last five years developing a pipeline of technologies that can churn out a remedy for almost any newly emerging virus may have treatments ready for safety trials on Covid-19 patients by the end of the year.
We know that outbreaks like coronavirus will become more common in the future and tackling them is the Apollo programme of our time, according to Professor Marion Koopmans, head of the viroscience department at Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
In November, Horizon discovers a futuristic world of transparent e-books, plastic solar cells and electronic skin with a look at some of the applications of organic electronics. We speak to organic chemist Prof. Andreas Hirsch about how using carbon rather than silicon in electronics can make them flexible, lightweight and biocompatible and could lead to a new generation of human-looking robots and ‘chemical’ computing. We take a look at work to create electronic skin – self-healing, stretchable material that can mimic some of the functions of human skin – and its potential uses. We discover how thin, flexible, plastic solar cells could turn surfaces such as cars and fabric into sources of renewable energy, and we uncover some novel approaches to charging wearable electronics.
The world looks very different from this time last year. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the centrality of science, research and innovation, accelerated some changes already in the works, but also exposed our weaknesses. In September, Horizon looks at how the pandemic is reshaping Europe in areas including health research, work, tech, transport and food – and how research can contribute to Europe’s recovery over the coming years. We will also be covering the European Research & Innovation Days at the end of the month, which will bring together scientists, policymakers, entrepreneurs and citizens to debate how research and innovation can ensure that the transition to a post-coronavirus society is sustainable, inclusive and resilient.
Bats are in the limelight these days because they are rumoured to be the source of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the coronavirus pandemic. But that is just part of their story. Bats turn out to be miraculous creatures. Their ability to age without decrepitude or cancer, as well as fight off a multitude of infections, are giving us clues about how to do the same for ourselves.
Thanks to rapid computing developments in the last decade and the miniaturisation of electronic components, people can, for example, track their movements and monitor their health in real time by wearing tiny computers. Researchers are now looking at how best to power these devices by turning to the user’s own body heat and working with garments, polka dots and know-how from the textile industry.
Bats stave off infections and ageing. What could humans learn from these abilities?
Researchers are harnessing the thermoelectric effect.
Dr Kate Rychert studies ocean plate structures.