Javier Abi-Saab (Fiocruz News Agency)
In 2020, research operations did not take place in Antarctica due to the restrictions enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the current public health crisis has shown the importance of knowledge in health, of surveillance, and of an integration of human, environmental, and animal health, in order to respond to present and future challenges. For this reason, teams are preparing for new research missions this year and are already debating ways to provide even more robust responses to the Unified Health System (SUS) and to society. The upcoming missions of the FioAntar project (Fiocruz in Antarctica) are scheduled for October 2020 all the way into March 2022 and will be following strict protocols imposed by the pandemic to ensure the safety not only of those involved, but also of the Antarctic environment itself. Their explorations can be followed through the project website.
Part of the preparation for the missions consisted in organizing an internal seminar (June 18th) in which each of the nine laboratories that make up the FioAntar had the chance to present the status of their research and to discuss methodological suggestions and search for synergies with the other laboratories and members of the initiative. The exchanges yielded fruitful discussions: results were shared, work and study groups were formed, methodologies and flows were aligned. With all these synergies converging, proposals appeared to improve the results FioAntar intends to deliver to SUS and to the Brazilian society.
The high potential of delivery of results involved in this project is associated with the model in which it was conceived and that has been considered a great differential in leading the research: FioAntar brings together researchers of nine laboratories of the institution, specialized in bioinformatics, genomics, viruses, bacteria, fungi, lichens, mycobacteria, and helminths. This is a multidisciplinary project that allows Fiocruz to respond to scientific questions from the perspective of different research fields and in an integrated way.
Marco Krieger, the institution’s Vice-President of Production and Innovation in Health, who attended the meeting, highlighted the importance and the unique character of FioAntar within the Brazilian Antarctic Program. “We are in a pretty important position and play a differentiated role, also with a vision of public health emergency that slightly precedes one of the biggest health emergencies humankind has ever seen. It will be relevant for us to continue to carry the Fiocruz flag. In addition to the laboratory, our responsibility increases with this important biosurveillance action”, says the Vice-President. Rodrigo Correa, Vice-President of Research and Biological Collections, was also at the seminar and highlighted the importance of prospecting Antarctic biodiversity.
The challenges faced by FioAntar are manyfold and range from improving the georeferencing process of samples to the training and involvement of the entire team and of laboratories in the metagenomic analysis. As the discussion went on, most challenges found proposals and lines of action focused on improving the quality of delivery by the project. One of the proposals involves concentrating information obtained by the various subprojects in a methodology that evaluates the risks of identified microorganisms for human, animal, and environmental health. “These methodologies that structure the data obtained in the field with data from literature can give us powerful results with the ability to influence the international scientific community and the society”, said Martha Lima Brandão, researcher of the Paleoparasitology Laboratory.
According to Brandão, the meeting was wrapped up with the collective feeling of “knowing what we are getting to and where we can still go”. Likewise, the seminar reinforced the legacy this project represents for society. A researcher of the Paleoparasitology Laboratory, Márcia Chame emphasized: “FioAntar has the role of being a legacy for humankind. It is very Fiocruz-like because it is long-term science. And it is strategic when it comes to our national sovereignty. Is there anything more strategic than biodiversity?”
These will be the first missions to the continent in which researchers will be able to rely on the support of Fiolab to speed up tests on material collected in the field, a biosafety laboratory equipped and maintained by Fiocruz and inaugurated with the new Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station in January 2020. Fiolab is the result of the cooperation agreement signed with the Secretariat of the Interministerial Commission for Sea Resources (Secirm/Marinha do Brasil), and is a biosecurity laboratory prepared to meet the country's epidemiological and sanitary surveillance needs, and support health and environmental research in Antarctica in a safe manner.