Researchers against Covid-19

They did not sit back during the lockdown! As scientists worldwide, the UNamur researchers were in the battle against Covid-19 since the beginning of the crisis. Their expertise bore around 20 research projects, often in collaboration with other Belgian or foreign universities. Thanks to their initiatives and work, society becomes aware of the importance of research and the numerous disciplines involved when fighting a pandemic. Here is an overview in a non-exhaustive list.

Collaboration between 6 UNamur labs, the SANA project driven by Benoît Muylkens, is created at the beginning of the crisis in March 2020. It enabled to increase the number of tests, target the propagation cores, and specifically test the most exposed people: doctors and front line medical staff. In collaboration with Damien Coupeau , Olivier Debacker is working at the development of SARS-CoV-2 detection tests, using a PCR-free gene fragments amplification test. Against RT-qPCR tests, the advantage is low cost and the simplicity of the necessary equipment. Thanks to the Biosafety Level 3 lab ( BL3 ), Nicolas Gillet is developing several cell culture systems, which can bear the replication of this coronavirus, to analyze the viral evolution underlying mechanisms. Henri-François Renard , in collaboration with UCL researchers, is trying to understand how the virus enters the cells, in order to fight SARS-CoV-2-type viruses efficiently. Stéphane Vincent is working on the synthesis of adherence and virus internalization inhibitors in host cells, in collaboration with the UCL. Stéphane Lucas, in collaboration with the SANA team, is evaluating the capacity of plasma and nanoparticle coatings on everyday life objects (hinges, taps...) to be active, i.e. destructive against certain viruses. He is testing if it is possible to create a spray/aerosol containing plasma-synthetized nanoparticles in order to better disinfect surfaces. Jonathan Douxfils and Jean-Michel Dogné have started new collaborations with Iris South Hospitals and St-Luc Clinic Bouge via Marie Tré-Hardy and Julien Favresse. The aim is to establish guidance for appropriate implementation, validation and interpretation of SARS-CoV-2 tests. Three scientific papers have been published in prestigious international journals. The Department of Pharmacy , on the initiative of Jean-Michel Dogné, also supported the medical centers of Namur by producing hydro-alcoholic gel during the disinfecting gel shortage, in order to ensure the security of medical staff and patients. Jean-Michel Dogné , together with Sarah Lessire , Christelle Vancraeynest and Romain Siriez also initiated the « opération 1dessin=1soutien », which gathered 500 volunteer artistic contributions to support patients who had no possibility of being visited during the lockdown.

Catherine Linard , in collaboration with Sciensano and researchers at the ULB, UCL and UHasselt, supports the group of experts on lockdown exit strategies (GEES) by spatial analyses, which aim at identifying the explicative (and predictive) factors of the epidemic spatial and temporal evolution, its transmission pockets (mobility, demography, environment) and predict its special and temporal evolution in Belgium. In a fundamental research at a population-based scale, Frédéric Silvestre is working on the comprehension of epigenetic mechanisms, which could influence the SARS-CoV-2 virulence, in collaboration with researchers from the Universities of Otago (New-Zeeland) and California Davis (USA).

A multidisciplinary inter-University consortium was created on the initiative of the Namur Institute for Complex Systems (naXys). For several weeks, they studied the evolution of the pandemic in Belgium. A team of professors and researchers created several relevant models, based on Sciensano statistical data. The models project the situations we might have to undergo in Belgium according to the decisions made by the Authorities. They predict the scenarios of tomorrow. These estimations comprise a mean trend, and intervals can be calculated, which can give an idea of the "trust milestones" between which we should stand. The models enable short-term simulations but also on the long-term if, for instance, the epidemic needs to be evaluated during the summer holidays. Each model can be adapted to a particular goal. The UNamur members consortium members are Morgane Dumont, Timoteo Carletti, Sébastien Clesse, Nicolas Franco, Catherine Linard, Alexandre Mauroy, Jean-Philippe Platteau, Annick Sartenaer et Vincenzo Verardi. Some of them are also collaborating with the GEES to make predictions until December 2020. The DEFiPP institute
In a recently published study , the CERPE (Centre for Research in Regional Economics and Economic Policy) analyses the impact of budgetary prespectives in the Walloon region, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation and the Brussels-Capital region. It notably estimates that the 2020 Walloon government expenditures are close to the billion euro, among which 350 million of budgetary reorientations. With the UCL College, Marcus Dejardin is in charge of the Belgian part of an international survey among university students. Initiated by the Erasmus University of Rotterdam (NL), the survey aims at studying individual behaviour during the coronavirus crisis, which led the public authorities to take certain measures. The study should help understand the impact of the measures on behaviour. Jean-Philippe Platteau , emeritus professor and Vincenzo Verardi , researcher at the CRED (Centre of Research in the Economics of Development) use an SEIR epidemiological model with an age group differenciation to understand the influence of a country’s social structure on the efficiency of deconfinement strategies. They compared the existing situation in Belgium, with what it would have been if the German or Italian social structures replaced the Belgian one. They demonstrate that deconfinement measures would be more liberal if the Belgians had the same visit frequency or social interactions as the Germans but should have to be stricter if they interacted like the Italians.

Stéphane Lucas and Richard Coos , in collaboration with the SANA team, have developped an alternative to the sampling system for the tests une alternative au système de prélèvements pour les tests (swabs).

Nathalie Burnay is leading a public enquiry about the feelings of the confinement impact. This enquiry aims at giving everyone a voice, to be able to express feelings and emotions. Martin Desseilles, member of the Transition and Esphin institutes, together with Hélène Givron and Joelle Berrewaerts, have led online enquiries for students, UNamur staff members, dispensary pharmacists (in collaboration with the SSPF - French-speaking Scientific Society of Pharmacists) and general practitioners (in association with the CMG - General Practitioners College). In the context of the pandemic and lockdown, they are assessing the impact in terms of mental health, resilience and practice change. They are collaborating with the McGill Colleges to assess the impact of the pandemic on family doctors in Québec.

The TRAKK The TRAKK (Namur creative hub) - FEDER fund-supported - federated its community, as well as members of the FabLabs around a syringe pump prototype project.

At the initiative of SPGE (Société Publique de Gestion des Eaux), Jonathan Marescaux ’s spin-off e-biom , in collaboration with the SANA lab, also implemented tests to check the presence of the virus in sewage.

The QUALIblood spin-off, in collaboration with the UNamur Department of Pharmacy , the CHU UCL Namur , the Saint-Luc Clinic Bouge, the CHU Estaing (France) and the CHU Gabriel Montpied (France) launched a clinical trial to investigate thrombo-inflammation in Covid-19 infected patients. This multicentric study, which received ethic agreements in Belgium and France, is at the stage of recruiting patients. The aim is to discover early biomarkers of the negative development of the illness. To reach this goal, QUALIblood bought a last generation machine capable of measuring 50 inflammatory biomarkers in a single series of analyses, increasing the spin-off analysis portfolio.

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Numerous collaborative platforms initiatives have also risen in Belgium and abroad, in order to facilitate data exchange or gather information at one place, in order to help researchers, notably in their projects. Researchers have also spoken out their opinion on the crisis in our « La parole à nos expert·e·s » section, where we propose to look beyond with a different approach on various questions like ecology, economy, remote working, mental health or well-being. Enjoy the reading...

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