During the peak of the pandemic Professor Mariana Viegas (Professor of Clinical Virology at the Faculty of Exact Sciences of the Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Argentina), saw an opportunity to brainstorm, create and coordinate the Argentine Consortium for SARS-CoV-2 Genomics (PAIS project). She spoke to our Communications Coordinator, Dr Laia Delgado Callico, at our penultimate Women in COG event of the year.
Since 2015, Mariana and her team have developed and implemented the genomic surveillance of Respiratory Syncytial Virus within paediatrics at their hospital. They were able to expand their experience into genomic studies of other viruses, and new approaches, such as metagenomics.
Because of her experience, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Mariana knew that sequencing would be key to the pandemic response.
“In March 2020, when the pandemic was declared around the world, there were yet to be any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Argentina, but we knew that we would need a sequencing protocol for SARS-CoV-2, to identify cases when they came, and so this is how the PAIS project came about” Mariana says.
“As a first step, we contacted Professor Nick Loman from the University of Birmingham, who was involved with the ARTIC network, to ask for ARTIC primers.” ARTIC primer pools are used for whole genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 and the ARTIC network made materials available to assist research groups around the world. These tools included a set of primers, laboratory protocols, bioinformatics tutorials and datasets. Having these materials meant that Mariana’s team would be ready for sequencing when the first cases of COVID-19 entered the country.
In parallel, the Ministry of Science of Argentina had created a ‘Coronavirus Unit’, with key members of the scientific community to help with the pandemic. Mariana also volunteered to participate in the genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 as part of this group. “This led to me meeting a very important virology researcher in Argentina, Dr Andrea Gamarnik, who was also involved in the Coronavirus Unit. I told her about our plans and ambitions for the PAIS project and she strongly encouraged me to embark on the project. Helpfully, she also advised me that the genomic surveillance should take place at the Federal level, and that we shouldn’t centralise sequencing in the capital city (Buenos Aires).”
From there, Mariana and her team took advantage of the sequencing capacity that had already been installed in different provinces of Argentina, asking them one by one to join the consortium. “We also called epidemiologists, bioinformaticians, virologists and the health boards of each province,” says Mariana, “They all joined enthusiastically, and I am proud to say that we are now a team of more than 100 researchers and healthcare professionals working collaboratively at the Federal level.” The consortium is now trying to move to other viruses that have a high public health impact in Argentina.
“The PAIS project is a culmination of everything I have done in my 20-year career, and the pandemic allowed me to build a network that I had always dreamed of” says Mariana.
“Although it feels strange to say, I was at the right level in my career where I was able to do this, and in many ways, the pandemic propelled my career forwards.”
Mariana’s experience has many similarities to other women during this time. A membership survey, run by COG-UK, found that 61% of female members found COVID-19 had positively impacted their career.
Mariana stresses that she didn’t just build a network within Argentina. “The pandemic has made collaboration between countries easier, and we continue to see this in Latin America,” says Mariana, “the most important part of this is the exchange of multidisciplinary knowledge across borders.”
At COG-UK, we share Mariana’s passion for knowledge exchange and collaboration, which is why we invited her to be involved in the COG-Train programme from the very beginning. “The way that COG-Train aimed to open the mind of many researchers across the world was exemplary to me,” says Mariana, “improving our collective knowledge was the only way that we could get through the pandemic together.”
Although Mariana was focusing on the PAIS project at the time COG-Train was launched, she contributed to the first training course, ‘The Power of Genomics to Understand the COVID-19 Pandemic’, where she shared her insights and learnings from Argentina.
When reflecting on the last 20 years of her career, the last 3 years setting up the PAIS project in particular, Mariana’s advice is to learn to work collaboratively in teams. “At the beginning of your career, individuality has its advantages,” says Mariana, “but at the end, collaboration and interdisciplinary work is more enriching, and allows for more successful results.”
To watch the full recording of the event, please click here
Dr Mariana Viegas
Mariana Viegas is a biochemist and has a PhD from the Faculty of Exact Sciences of the Universidad Nacional de La Plata (UNLP). She is a professor of clinical virology at that faculty since 2006. Mariana has been working on viral evolution studies of respiratory viruses in paediatric patients at the Virology Laboratory of the Ricardo Gutiérrez Children’s Hospital (HNRG) in Buenos Aires, Argentina since 1999, where she is currently an independent CONICET researcher. She has collaborated as an External Advisor to the World Health Organization since 2019 within the WHO Global Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Surveillance program. In 2013, Mariana ventured into Next Generation Sequencing technologies to begin with the genomic approach in her work. Since 2015, her team developed and implemented a genomic surveillance of RSV in paediatrics at their hospital. Then, they expanded their experience into the genomic studies of other respiratory viruses and new approaches, such as metagenomics. Due to her previous experience, she was the right person to brainstorm, create, and coordinate the Argentine Consortium for SARS-CoV-2 Genomics (PAIS project).