Science & Technology

Confront a series of epidemics including COVID-19

However, the harsh reality is that RIKEN did not have a manual to respond to an epidemic of this scale, and when the pandemic began, it began to take measures while monitoring the situation. In order to protect employees and prevent the spread of infection due to the movement of people, we rushed to introduce staggered commuting on February 20 and work from home on March 2, and instructed the secretariat to formulate a business continuity plan (BCP). did. From April 8th, when the National State of Emergency was announced, as a general rule, all employees were ordered to work from home, the experiments in the laboratory were stopped, and only those related to COVID-19 were left. It was necessary to determine the really important continuity and give special permission to personnel involved in important activities such as caring for valuable laboratory animals and maintenance of laboratory equipment using liquid nitrogen or helium, but otherwise. The restrictions were very strict. strong. Based on the BCP, we asked the institute to consider what was needed and what had to be maintained when the study was resumed. The key to responding to such an emergency is not just to move forward or stop everything, but to distinguish between what is needed to continue the research and what is not.

In a crisis we have to look beyond originality alone

As soon as the scale of the epidemic began to become apparent, many researchers expressed their desire to help overcome the pandemic and see if their research would be useful in any way. As the secretary general in charge of research, I decided to solicit research proposals, thinking that I must make the best use of RIKEN’s research capabilities and resources in order to meet the needs of society.

In essence, researchers care about being original. But given the current situation in which we are fighting a pandemic, we conclude that we need to go beyond that. If someone can make a breakthrough, it benefits all humanity, so work on whatever other researchers think is effective, even if it seems like something else is doing or trivial. I called on people. In response, we received many suggestions. I think it was also a motivation to be able to study COVID-19 even if the regular experiments were interrupted. After all, researchers love research and want to do it and contribute to society. As a result, on April 21, about 30 proposals were adopted, started, and already prepared as special projects utilizing the Presidential Discretionary Fund. various result.. Since June 8, experiments other than the new coronavirus have been restarted in stages, and research and development with safety measures has been carried out.

Proper understanding and proper fear

The most important thing to prevent the spread of infectious diseases is to have a correct understanding and proper fear. For this reason, RIKEN is responsible for providing accurate information to society. The simulation of droplet diffusion using the supercomputer “Tomitake” was widely taken up by the media and raised public awareness about effective infection control. In the future, we plan to work with virologists to simulate the number of viruses contained in droplets and the amount of droplets that can lead to infection.

Humans have overcome infectious diseases and coexisted throughout history. I think we can overcome the pandemic of COVID-19. However, the epidemic will continue to occur. By memorizing the measures that were effective this time and making improvements as necessary, you will be able to respond quickly next time. Of course, research on infectious diseases also needs to be continued. In recent years, many medical schools in Japan have closed microbiology, bacteriology, and virology laboratories, and infectious disease specialists are poorly trained. In fact, there are currently no researchers in Japan who specialize in coronavirus. Every time we face a new epidemic, the importance of continuous research is pointed out, but we need to prepare for the next epidemic rather than forgetting it when the next epidemic is over.

Towards an era of diversity and symbiosis

I think the keywords of Post COVID-19 are diversity and coexistence. For example, the intestines of organisms, including humans, are hosts for a wide variety of microorganisms that aid digestion. Humans have long been in symbiotic relationships with microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses. Instead of living in fear of COVID-19, it’s time to think about how we can coexist with COVID-19.

■■ This article is based on an interview with RIKEN Secretary-General Shigeo Koyasu. First appeared in Japanese as part of the January issue of RIKEN News. ■■

Confront a series of epidemics including COVID-19 Confront a series of epidemics including COVID-19

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