In April we interviewed successful alumnus Professor S.S. Vasan, who completed his part-time MBA at our Edinburgh Campus. Six months on, he has shared an exciting update on his latest COVID-19 research breakthroughs at Australia’s science agency CSIRO.
What progress have you and your team made in the last six months?
"We have provided preclinical data on the leading vaccines - Oxford and Inovio - to support their regulatory applications, and also investigated if the Oxford vaccine given intranasally, rather than as an injection, could be more protective. 144,000 sequences of this virus have been sequenced and shared globally but seldom with meaningful and interoperable patient medical information. We have published a global template to collect deidentified metadata on the patients from whom these sequences came, so we can make the most out of Big Data.”
“We were the first to show, through experiments backed by computer modelling, that the new and dominant G strain of the virus is unlikely to affect vaccines."
Can you give a couple of examples of how insights from your MBA have helped your current work on vaccines and countermeasures?
“It’s not enough if a vaccine or countermeasure is safe and effective; it has to be cost-effective as well. During pandemics, we have to reduce the ‘implementation gap’ – the oft-quoted 17 years for research evidence to reach clinical practice is simply not an option – because even 17 months is deemed unacceptable for COVID-19.”
“Scientific research, especially during pandemics, has to be relevant and address critically unmet needs. Time is of the essence and opportunity cost cannot be ignored, so it is extremely important for scientists to focus on their core competence and cooperate with each other.”
Talking of cooperation, how is your interaction with the WHO and other health organisations across the globe progressing?
"The WHO ad-hoc expert group that I am part of has published an authoritative review of ‘Animal Models for COVID-19’ in the journal Nature. I co-led the section on ferrets. It a great example of 40 health organisations across the world working together. Other important group meetings I attend include the Medical Countermeasures Consortium and the Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network."
What are the next steps for you?
"Having made substantial progress with vaccines preclinical evaluation, I have been busy preparing for discoveries and clinical collaborations to support better prognosis and therapies. I believe these are relative unmet and urgent needs.”
Are you working on any other viruses at present or is your focus COVID-19?
"I have been working on polio as well since January, co-leading the potentially infectious materials inventory which is our national obligation to the WHO. Not many are aware that polio has been a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ since 2014! Unfortunately work on other important viruses have been paused worldwide to focus on COVID-19, but this may change in 2021.”
What is the future for universities like Heriot-Watt in a post-COVID world?
“The University is not alone in facing the disruptions and financial pressures due to COVID-19. But in terms of long-term recovery, Heriot-Watt has a competitive advantage, thanks to the spirit of enterprise, campuses in UAE and Malaysia, and decades of experience in delivering distance as well as blended learning.”
You can read Professor Vasan’s recent paper in Nature, including animation of the mutated virus. His previous interview is available at Doing Watt Matters – Alumnus on frontline of COVID-19 vaccine.