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27 May 2020 4 min read

Our scientists are hard at work fighting the current COVID-19 pandemic. One of those scientists is Professor S.S Vasan, who leads our SARS-CoV-2 virus work. He and his team analysed the SARS-COV-2 genome to understand how the virus is evolving. Prof. Vasan also led the pre-clinical trials testing two vaccine candidates selected by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). So, it's safe to say he has a front-row seat in figuring out how we should best manage COVID-19's impacts. We were lucky to chat with Prof. Vasan about his role in fighting the virus, and how he got to where he is.

What is your role?

I'm CSIRO's Dangerous Pathogens Team Leader. We research, develop and evaluate countermeasures against zoonoses, which are diseases transmitted from animals to humans. My rank is Senior Principal Research Consultant for our Health and Biosecurity business unit.

Where are you based? What's so special about it?

I am based at the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP) in Geelong, Victoria. It was formerly known as the Australian Animal Health Laboratory. The ACDP is the world's largest high-containment facility of its kind. It's the world's largest operational Physical Containment 3 and Physical Containment 4 complex that can work on large animals. It also does this to the Good Laboratory Practice standards.

What does a usual day look like for you and your team?

As the name says, my team works with dangerous pathogens such as Ebola, Hendra and Nipah. We have a varied workload throughout the year but focus on a given experiment until it finishes. Since January, we've been extremely busy with COVID-19, as we are leading the pre-clinical response.

How are you looking at COVID-19 within your research field?

We have grown and characterised this virus, creating sufficient working stocks to conduct pre-clinical research and vaccine evaluation. We were the first to show that ferrets are susceptible. With funding from the global CEPI, we have developed the ferret model and are conducting the world's first multi-vaccine animal efficacy studies. With the Oxford vaccine, I am evaluating whether giving it through the nose offers better protection than as an injection. We are also looking at testing promising antivirals and therapies.

Working with bioinformaticians, we have analysed how this virus is evolving and what this means. We have established that the virus is not mutating like the influenza virus. To make sense of the large amount of genomic data, we have called for de-identified patient metadata to be made available. This will help inform diagnostics, surveillance and response to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

How's your work with COVID-19 similar and different to other infectious diseases?

The principles of virology and vaccinology are the same. What's different is that we are working at breakneck speed with a new virus. We're carefully balancing this against scientific rigour and staff fatigue. Vaccines take 10-15 years to develop and evaluate. We are working towards 10-15 months, so the timescale is accelerated tenfold.

Any interesting insights you've discovered during your COVID-19 research?

Yes, especially from our work on genomics and bioinformatics. It would not have been possible without an open mind and deep collaboration between teams with complementary expertise. CSIRO is great in that way. Working for a single science agency means I have colleagues from other parts of ACDP and Health & Biosecurity, as well as other business units such as Data61 and Land & Water. Their inputs are critical.

Did you always want to be a scientist?

Yes, although I wanted to be a medic when I was at school. But I went into biomedical research instead.

What was your pathway to where you are now?

Very long! ? I completed two Masters degrees before my doctorate at Oxford. I worked for the University's spin-out company on arboviral diseases. Then I worked at the equivalent high-containment facility at Porton Down, England, before joining the CSIRO in 2019.

What is the difference being a young scientist versus a team leader?

When you are a young scientist, you spend a lot of time learning to 'do things right'. Like, for example, growing bacteria or viruses without contamination and harming yourself. As you gain experience, you supervise junior scientists.

As team leader, I spend more time ensuring we are set out to ‘do the right thing’ (i.e. work on problems of high consequence that we are best suited to solve). I also trust my team members to 'do things right'.

What advice would you give to young people looking to build a career in STEM?

1. Take your time.

Along the way, I was also a graduate trainee in CSIR India, a consultant in USA, CEO of a Malaysian biotech, operations lead for UK’s National Incident (Ebola) Coordination Centre, and NHS delivery director. These interesting stints gave me first-hand experience and knowledge of the challenges faced by scientists in resource-constrained settings. It also gave me insights on how the same problem is approached differently by small companies, big pharma and healthcare commissioners. And the need to operate at speed during emergencies. All these are highly relevant to my current role.

2. Gain broad skills.

To be a good scientist, we need solid skills in statistical design and research methods. To be an outstanding scientist, we need at least a basic understanding of philosophy, economics and social sciences. Dr Sheldon Cooper may not like this, but it is true!

3. Learn team working.

In the end, it all comes down to people working as a team to solve 'wicked' problems. If we don’t get that right and communicate well with each other, it is not possible to do good science.

Thanks, Vasan! Good luck to you and the rest of your team.

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