The contribution of Vilnius University to the pandemic response: from consulting and provision of support to sample diagnostics and development of new methods

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With the coronavirus gradually withdrawing from Lithuania, the three-month quarantine has been lifted. Life is getting back to normal, and the major focus is now on the evaluation of the measures taken as well as on the discussion of successful measures and the lessons, which can be learned in the event of a second wave of the pandemic.

Back in February, when coronavirus reached Lithuania, public and governing authorities, realising that on the one hand public health and human lives are at stake and on the other hand national economies and jobs are at stake, turned to science institutions and scientists, whose knowledge and insights would allow to control this pandemic and to return to normal life.

“The world has not faced a pandemic of such a scale for more than a century. Today, the number of people infected with coronavirus in Lithuania has exceeded 1,500, but various modelled scenarios suggest that the situation could have been much worse. The contribution of members of the academic community to the fight against coronavirus is particularly significant. By sharing the joint experience of scientists and research-based knowledge with the Government, business, public institutions and the public, we helped the state prepare for the pandemic and promptly find solutions to emerging problems,” says Rector of Vilnius University (VU) Prof Rimvydas Petrauskas.

In order to prevent the spread of the infection and contribute to its control, an expert group of VU scientists joining the competencies of various fields of science has been formed at the initiative of the VU management. Representatives of the group participated in the activities of the Government, its institutions, the State Emergency Operations Centre, provided recommendations on the methods and measures of the virus control, performed short-term and long-term prognostic modelling of the virus spread in Lithuania, shared relevant information with the public at press conferences organised by the Government and in the media

In addition, bearing in mind the fact that the public’s anxiety and fear are fuelled by poor awareness and a large flow of coordinated disinformation, a cycle of information programmes and articles “VU ekspertai padeda suprasti” (VU experts help understand) was launched in cooperation with the Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT. In these programmes and articles, scientists clearly and comprehensibly talked about the measures of pandemic control and their necessity. They shared their insights about possible post-pandemic life scenarios and analysed them, talked about the latest data on vaccine research and its benefits, refuted myths unsupported by science and purposefully incited fears. Vilnius University communication during the pandemic was also rated one of the three best in the public sector at the PR Impact Awards 2020.

 

Over 8 thousand COVID-19 tests

In April, the scientific laboratory of the VU Life Sciences Centre was reorganised into a diagnostic laboratory within just 12 days as from the decision was made. In order to contribute to the pandemic control not only by providing knowledge and information, but also with real practical work, more than 8 thousand COVID-19 samples were tested in this laboratory. In addition, the centre’s scientists carried out validation of seroepidemiologic tests in a short period of time, which made it possible to plan studies of the country’s population that are important for assessing and predicting the epidemiological situation. The available knowledge, competencies and the experience gained allowed to initiate and improve the development of innovative diagnostic solutions based on science and to engage in international scientific cooperation.

Volunteers of the VU community, i.e. scientists and students, also worked for free in other diagnostic laboratories in the country, where COVID-19 samples were tested - at VU Hospital Santaros Klinikos, National Cancer Institute, National Public Health Centre, mobile testing units and elsewhere.

In order to protect VU residents working on the pandemic front lines at VU Hospital Santaros Klinikos and other medical institutions, the Vilnius University Fund organised a fund-raising campaign for the purchase of protective equipment (respirators, protective suits, face shields, protective eye wear). It was expected that the campaign will raise 10 thousand euros right after its start, but expectations were exceeded three times – 30.8 thousand euros were collected, and 4,500 respirators, 650 protective suits, 350 protective face shields, and 100 protective eye wear were purchased.
In addition, after receiving the targeted support, equipment for disinfection of protective equipment was purchased for VU Žalgiris Clinics.

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