This week the Ministry of Science launched a call to grant research grants to develop the best ideas of Argentine researchers to help fight one of the most terrible rates of the pandemic in Argentina: hunger and malnutrition. With funding provided by the Development Bank of Latin America from the Ministry of Science to help develop food products to reduce child malnutrition. This initiative joins others that, since March, the Conicet and other scientific organizations carry out under the umbrella of the “Covid-19 Unit”. This group includes the launches of products and tools against the pandemic. PROFILE interviewed the Undersecretary of Institutional Coordination, Pablo Núñez, who is responsible for the day-to-day running of these units. Núñez is a biologist, associate researcher at Conicet and his specialty is data science, modeling and biostatistics applied to health and nutrition.
“What is the Covid-19 unit of Conicet?”
—It’s the way we found, back in March of this year, to add human resources, infrastructure and equipment to do research on the coronavirus. For that, we coordinate the possibilities and funds of the ministry, Conicet and the Research Agency, and we put together a strategy to rapidly develop technological projects to face Covid-19. Historically our scientific system has always been fragmented and this unity helped speed up the coordination of advances.
“How many resources did they dedicate to it?”
—In principle we have invested about 500 million pesos in these issues. Between the two calls, more than 1,400 ideas were submitted, which were evaluated by a group of 60 specialists and we financed 200 projects. In the number of people involved, so far, the participation was more than 3,000 Argentine scientists among researchers from Conicet, INTA, INTI, professors from universities and other institutions that joined.
—In science, obtaining results and products usually takes years. And in Argentina even more so.
-It is true. That is why at the Covid-19 Unit we try to give these projects a different imprint to obtain concrete results in months. In fact, several – such as diagnostic kits or chinstraps – are already being used and are even beginning to be exported. Of course, some of the developments were already advanced. For example, there were innovative diagnostic kits for dengue almost ready, but going through the bureaucratic stages of approval and commercialization. While those responsible redesigned them to detect SARS-CoV-2, we accelerated what was necessary to get out with the product. Thus, today we have three different kits: the NEO-kit, the Covid-AR and the ELA-Chemstrip.
“What other products did they make?”
—The fabric chinstrap with antiviral capabilities thanks to its nanomaterials came onto the market in four months. It was born as the idea of an SME dedicated to the textile industry. In addition, this gives rise to other developments: they are already thinking of something similar, but with fabrics capable of protecting against the mosquitoes that transmit dengue.
“And in other areas?”
—We are developing the app CuidAR, which is used throughout the country. The consortium that is in charge of sequencing the genome of viral strains isolated in different provinces that are referred to a global base also works very well. And we work improving respirators. Finally, we are very happy with the studies on new treatments: from the use of convalescent plasma and “equine” serum to ivermectin assays and what may come, in the medium term, such as the isolation of llama monoclonal nanoantibodies, an advance that we presented days ago.
The first antiviral is approved in the US
The US drug regulatory body yesterday approved the widespread use of remdesivir, a drug that, according to the laboratory that developed it, has antiviral properties that could be used to treat Covid-19. However, it is another of the therapeutic molecules that are “debated”, since in several international studies its use only demonstrated a marginal and non-significant efficacy in reducing the mortality of patients hospitalized with this pathology and it did not serve to minimize the days in intensive care. It comes surrounded by debates because it is another of the drugs for which Donald Trump himself “lobbied” in numerous public statements in the context of the electoral campaign. This molecule was originally designed by scientists at the Gilead Sciences laboratory to be used in the treatment of Ebola and hepatitis C, and its therapeutic action works by interfering with the reproduction of the viral genome.