Beyond the grim situation that COVID-19 caused across the world, the global academic community and biotechnological industry are coming together to bring answers and solutions to the world

This story is part of the United Nations in BiH series of personal accounts highlighting extraordinary work during COVID-19 response and recovery; marking UN75.

My name is Dženan Kovačić, and I am one of the winners at the covIDEJA 2020 ideathon, jointly organized by UNDP in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bit Alliance. My award-winning idea relates to the Vault platform for vaccine development and therapeutics for intracellular pathogens such as SARS-CoV2 infections and bacteria such as the tubercle bacillus. Most of my activities pertaining to the unfortunate situation with COVID-19 revolve around scientific research and development, education and capacity building. Unfortunately, Bosnia and Herzegovina has been, for the longest time, quite inadequately prepared to join global race in research, discovery and development, such as the one we are currently in. As a response to the overarching demand for building the infrastructure necessary for the numerous fields of science that most people in Bosnia and Herzegovina have very little access to, my wonderful research team at the Sharklab Center for Marine and Freshwater Biology and I have been working on establishing a research center that would provide exactly that, while offering young scientists a platform and an environment in which they may commence their contributions to science. Everything that we have done thus far has been directed towards sustainable and comprehensible science, particularly in the fields of COVID-19, tuberculosis and human genetics.

We are developing new research techniques, protocols, and educating students on how they can both garner the necessary financial and intellectual means, as well as the infrastructure necessary for conductive cutting-edge research. I'm proud to say that some of the techniques that we are currently developing, both for treatment of tuberculosis, rapid vaccine development and others, are at the forefront of science. Furthermore, in recent months I've had the privilege of guiding my own research teams in order to tackle as many aspects of this unfortunate pandemic as possible. Thus, I hold responsibilities as a project coordinator, supervisor and co-founder, and have to search for ways, methods and means by which we can work as efficiently, rationally and as sustainably as possible.

Imposition of the numerous restrictions during the early months of the pandemic, were certainly a sight to behold, and one that had given me hope in a rational and quick resolution of this very dire situation. Unfortunately, unlike certain parts of the world, they were inadequately executed. It is beyond the doubt of anyone who has an in-depth or even a basic understanding of epidemics, that abrupt lockdowns for a relatively short period of time, are the only way of "quickly" stopping this pandemic. This, however, did not happen. Unfortunately, the subpar measures have caused a significant deterioration of the global situation with COVID-19, which most certainly isn't pleasant for anyone. My own activities were adjusted significantly, particularly when it comes to my research in the laboratory. Restrictive measures meant that neither I nor my colleagues could efficiently access the facilities that we use at our institutions, and thus our work was impeded during the early days of the pandemic. However, thanks to the wonders of computational biology, I managed to use software in order to study this virus, make predictions and subsequently author publications on both COVID-19, tuberculosis and generally the human immune system. The sheer slowing of pace in the early months of the pandemic, have also allowed me to be more proactive in certain aspects, particularly with computer-aided drug design and discovery, which plays a significant role in the research I do today. Unfortunately, the novel restrictive measures, improvised as they are, threaten to derail our progress once again. We can only hope to be adequately prepared. 

Once we look past the grim situation that this virus has caused across the world, one may notice how quickly the global academic community and biotechnological industry has come together to bring answers and solutions to the world. This gives me great hope for the future. Perhaps had it not been for the presence of a virus as easily transmitted as this one, we would've never felt the need to rethink our economic models, to rapidly orient ourselves towards sustainability, nor tap into the sheer power of technology, like we have in the recent months. Although the virus on its own is fascinating, our response to it from the aspect of research and development, has truly been stunning.

The unpredictability of this virus, stemming from its novelty to the human population, is incredibly frightening. The newer the data that keeps coming out, the more we realize just how strange and dangerous this virus is. Working in the scientific field, even when science is most needed, is unnecessarily difficult in the country, making it an essentially trivial, yet imposing obstacle for progress. After going through all the available data, both biological and socio-economic, my greatest concern is how exactly will the world recover from this pandemic and, even if the world does economically heal, how will we approach the global emergency of infectious diseases? Many infectious diseases have been neglected in the meantime, such as tuberculosis, which has been the leading cause of death in the world owed to a single pathogen for decades, as well as numerous other dangerous pathogens. Even if some countries were to effectively recover, how will the recovery period affect our monitoring, research and prevention of other infectious diseases that could just as easily cause another pandemic? There are many questions that have been opened as part of the COVID19 fallout, and how we are going to answer them is my biggest concern.  

In the beginning of this pandemic, I would've said that research and development was the most important aspect to address. Although this still holds to be true, it is the general public and the way in which information is presented to them that seems to be a challenge. An overwhelming amount of people believe this is a conspiracy, and a notably high amount of people question the existence of this virus to begin with. Thanks to this, many do not adhere to preventive measures such as facemasks, not crowding in public places, social distancing etc. It's easy to complain about how the number of cases is exponentially growing, how hospitals are flooded with patients, and how the scientific community is slow at finding answers, when one doesn't understand that this isn't an issue restricted to scientists, or the elderly population, or medical staff: this pandemic is a global problem, and everyone is affected by it. Communication from health authorities and governments to their people is crucial in a time of crisis, and many seem to have failed miserably at that.   

My current commitments are oriented towards mitigating the fallout of COVID-19 when it comes to tuberculosis. Unfortunately, the past several months have caused a spike in TB cases across the world and, with healthcare systems being overburdened with COVID-19 patients, the need to develop effective treatments that will be capable of curing this infectious disease, is paramount. Both the fronts of vaccine development and treatment development, are something that my team and I have been focusing on. Furthermore, I've expanded my work towards research in precision medicine, where treatments are tailored to populations based on their genetic variations, rather than using the "one size fits all" approach. Such an approach has created a climate of drug resistant bacteria, the incurability of tuberculosis, and lack of efficient treatments for chronic illnesses that continue to plague the global population etc. Furthermore, strengthening the scientific community by providing research and educational opportunities for the youth of B&H, will continue to be an integral part of my activities, both during the pandemic, and the recovery period of the pandemic. Building a network of supporters, collaborators and scientists, is going to be a difficult task, but with the help of numerous organizations and institutions, we hope to achieve it soon.

It is indeed quite difficult to single out one person whose actions or words stood out the most within the recent pandemic period. In fact, everyone who used this difficult period to produce something of value and something of utility, have been inspiring on their own. A global pandemic implies a global effort, and the current global efforts directed towards allowing humans to adapt to this virus, have been admirable!

UN entities involved in this initiative
UNDP
United Nations Development Programme