We are all impacted by COVID-19. Although some of us more than others, we all experience the effects both in our personal and professional life. Today we would like to share the practical implications of the COVID-19 developments on the progress and work that is ongoing in CIRCLES.

What is the current situation in CIRCLES?

Due to the lockdowns, many of us – whether in Italy, France, Greece, the UK or Belgium – are working from home. For some of the management and coordination teams that is not a problem, but we had to put most of our lab-based activities on hold.

As all over the word, in-person meetings are now replaced by online video conferencing in different formats. This includes our yearly General Assembly at the end of April, during which we exchange project progress updates and align on upcoming experiments and other initiatives. We hope to discuss the most relevant issues virtually in April and then reconvene in September to catch up with each other in person.

Teleconferences became an important part of our daily work.

For the actual research work, most of our current microbiome sampling activities have been heavily impacted:

  • The wild gilt-head seabream will be sampled later once restrictions have been lifted again;
  • The ongoing cultured gilt-head seabream experiment is monitored by a minimum of staff, but sampling cannot be conducted. Depending on when sampling can start, the experiment might have to be relaunched to enable us to follow a new fish production cycle from the very beginning;
  • In the pig food chain current sampling activities are not foreseen until end of May/beginning of June. As long as the sampling activities can be performed during that time frame, our researchers will not have to wait for a new piglet lifecycle to start, which can take up to nine months to complete.
  • The microbiome sampling in poultry has been put completely on hold until the situation improves;
  • Experiments in tomato and spinach plants were nearly completed and some samples have even been processed, but for the moment all activities had to be put on hold. However, depending on the length of the COVID-19 restrictions, our researchers may have to await the growing cycle in 2021 to complete their experiments.

Colleagues in their home offices.

Whether we can use the samples collected for CIRCLES thus far or not depends on the duration of the COVID-19 restrictions. However, some microbial samples are still relevant and could be stored appropriately and in time for future use.

In those cases where data are already available, our researchers are doing deskwork as much as they can already, such as implementing bio-informatics tools and analysing microbiome genomics.

How is CIRCLES helping to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic?

We are in a unique position to help the coordinated approach of reducing the impact of COVID-19 on all of us:

  • Some of our researchers are lending their genetics expertise to understand the data which is available from the COVID-19 tests and help inform local and national governments on how to best manage the pandemic;
  • IT-equipment which was initially foreseen to be used for CIRCLES has now been made available to understand how COVID-19 spread before it turned into a pandemic, through looking at over 1000 human faecal samples from all over the world. This ensures decision-making bodies always have up-to-date and relevant information available;
  • Our researchers at INRAE Dijon are making laboratory equipment available to the hospital in Dijon, to allow for faster COVID-19 testing;
  • Our Italian colleagues have donated testing materials for the virus to local hospitals in Bologna to replace reagents that are currently running low;
  • Some of the samples that may be useless for the CIRCLES project itself may, later on, be used to track the environmental spread of the COVID-19 virus (outside of the human transmission chain) once the human health crisis is over;
  • Other CIRCLES equipment is currently used to track COVID-19 particles in air to assess the virus’ behaviour in air in relation to air pollution.

What’s ahead for CIRCLES?

The current circumstances have changed what we can do for the project, but they have not impacted our dedication. We continue working on those tasks that are feasible working from home and virtually:

  • Analysing data and writing scientific publications;
  • Holding alignment meetings via teleconferences;
  • Making contingency plans for our experiments based on the evolution of the pandemic on local and global scales and communicating with our funders (the European Commission) on what options we have to still meet our project goals.

In the words of Grazia Quero, one of our researchers in Italy: ‘In this particular moment, we are realising the value of the means of communication at our disposal: we have the opportunity to continue with our work, from writing papers, making virtual meetings, writing projects. Although separate and distant, this allows us to go on and keeping feeling and acting as a team.’