Graphics by Taz

UWI’s GVN membership an ace for the Caribbean

THE RECENT DESIGNATION of THE UWI, Mona as an Affiliate Centre of Excellence with the Global Virus Network (GVN) is one that should go a far way in enhancing Jamaica’s response to viruses.

“It is a significant designation because it opens us to members of the network, which has [more than] 30 collaborating centres with expertise in virology,” said John Lindo, professor of parasite epidemiology and deputy dean with responsibility for research in the Faculty of Medical Sciences.

“You have people in vector control and vaccine development; people who are working on the development of new diagnostic tests for viruses — new tests that would be much cheaper for persons. We also have people looking at the treatment or viruses. So it gives us access to expertise in a great number of areas,” he said.

The designation — which also affords The University prestige in applying for international research and development grants — became official on May 24 when the announcement was made by GVN co-founder and scientific director Dr Robert Gallo, and president Dr José Esparza.

“We look forward to working with colleagues in Jamaica through The UWI, Mona to explore new research projects, such as those involving endemic viruses in the region, including HIV and HTLV (Human T-cell Lymphotropic Virus) and to examine and implement best practices as we work together to enhance the global safety net against viral disease,” said Gallo.

The designation comes at a time when Jamaica, as other islands of the Caribbean, are doing battle with the likes of the Zika, which has a number of pregnant women and their partners running scared due to the risk of microcephaly; and Chikungunya.

These viruses — together with a host of others, including HIV — could do significant harm to the economy of the islands, if allowed to run unchecked. There is, too, the risk of significant social harm.
Against this background, Lindo said he is thrilled at the GVN designation, even as he looks ahead to the important work that needs to be done.

“I am very elated that we were so designated. I am elated because the Caribbean region as a whole requires greater capacity building in virology in terms of personnel, in terms of training, in terms of opening new avenues of controlling and treating viruses. So I am elated that this opportunity has come our way and I will do everything I can to make it a successful endeavour,” said the man, who, during his tenure as head of the Department of Microbiology, oversaw the work to have The University so recognized.

The designation was made possible, courtesy of, inter alia , The UWI’s reputation as a research institute and one that works in close conjunction with the Ministry of Health to respond to epidemics of viruses.

“We are also Jamaica’s only virus laboratory with expertise to grow and isolate viruses. So we are always a part of the responses to viruses and virus infections. These are the things that are recognised as important in the designation,” Lindo explained.

There was, too, a membership fee that had to be paid — US$50,000, which was negotiated down from US$100,000.
“The UWI, through the Office of the Principal, contributed US$25,000 and The University Development and Endowment Fund contributed another US$25,000,” Lindo said.
The professor added that the principal had requested that the endowment fund assist the
GVN to raise US$1 million from the Jamaican private sector. This money would be used to support the activities of the GVN including ramping up diagnosis, preparing for influenza treatment and training personnel.

With the designation out of the way, Lindo said it was now down to making a difference in the lives of Jamaicans and the people of the Caribbean as a whole.
“It is about opening new areas of endeavor [and] one of the areas we want to open is in vector control,” he said. “So, how do we more effectively control the aedes aegypti mosquito? Are we going to use genetically modified mosquitoes? Are we going to use mosquitoes modified by radiation, or a sterile mosquito programme?” he said.
This new thrust also involves exploring better ways to characterise viruses to identify new and emerging strains that have never been seen anywhere else.
“We also have to keep our obligations to the WHO to provide information on what influenza viruses are circulating and, in a timely manner, so that the appropriate vaccines can be made for these viruses,” he added.
Already, they have trained one doctor in virology through the GVN, with a second to undergo training in September.

“In that way, we will have enough trained personnel to handle any future threats of either current viruses or new viruses that will come along,” said Lindo, who indicated that The UWI lab is currently staffed by three full-time consultant virologists and two others who are able to fill in.
Meanwhile, he described what success for him would look like in the coming months and years.
“I think we have to look at viruses in a broad spectrum from these epidemic ones that we hear about like dengue and Chikungunya, and so on,” he said. “So success would be, in my view, the rolling out of new vaccines, new treatments and new methods of vector control, and some of these will cut across from pure virology into public health, such as the vector control initiative,” he added.
As to how to realise that success, Lindo asserted that a variety of factors would be at play.
“What it will take is close working relationships between all partners, with The University providing the lead, in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, the private sector and civil society.”
It will also require massive funding, which Lindo said has to come from government, the private sector and international agencies