BICUTAN, TAGUIG CITY – The National Academy of Science and Technology, Philippines (NAST PHL) held a webinar on Viral Evolution on 6 October 2021. The online forum aimed to provide a deeper understanding of the underlying principles and mechanisms of viral evolution and substantially contribute to the formulation of implementable actions towards a more competent management and control of viral diseases in humans and animals. The webinar was also held in support of the Academy’s recommendations on this topic that were put forward through the resolutions of the 2021 Regional Scientific Meetings (RSMs) and the 43rd Annual Scientific Meeting (ASM).
In her welcome remarks, NAST PHL President Academician (Acd.) Rhodora V. Azanza mentioned the disruption and transformation of society brought about by the global COVID-19 pandemic. She highlighted the important role of the scientific community in providing knowledge and solutions to the pandemic and the control and prevention of other viral diseases.Acd. Gisela P. Concepcion gave an overview of the webinar. In addition to supporting the Academy’s resolutions on the need to support a comprehensive genomic biosurveillance system and “develop curricular programs on viral evolution, strengthen training and mentorship, and provide research funds to advance virology, wildlife ecology, and conservation.” Acd. Concepcion also noted that the webinar is being held to increase awareness on the proposed Virology and Vaccine Institute of the Philippines (VIP). She rallied scientists of all disciplines to face the challenge of the pandemic with courage and humility towards a whole-of-nature, whole-of-science approach.
Dr. Elpidio Cesar B. Nadala Jr., co-founder and vice president of Research and Development of the California-based company Diagnostics for the Real World Ltd, discussed SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of the COVID-19 disease. Aside from being one of the Balik Scientists tapped for the VIP, Dr. Nadala worked on the development of rapid diagnostic tests for various viral diseases including COVID-19. In his talk, Dr. Nadala presented an overview on viruses, their origin, diversity, and evolution. He noted that the number of known and named viruses has exploded following the application of advanced methods.
Dr. Nadala emphasized that the public is confronted by the reality of viral evolution as seen with yearly bouts of influenza and the emergence of new viral diseases. He mentioned that viral evolution is a product of an “arms race” between the virus and the host. He added that the process is further driven by the scale of viral reproduction and production of viral mutants. He also mentioned that viral populations exist as non-identical but related copies of the same virus within the host and this can contribute to the evolution of some viruses through the recombination and reassortment of genetic components.
Invited speakers and panelists for the webinar on Viral Evolution. First row (From left to right): Acd. Windell Rivera, webinar moderator; Dr. Pia Bagamasbad, OYS 2019; and Dr. Elpidio Cesar Nadala Jr. Second row: Acd. Asuncion Raymundo; Acd. Gisela Concepcion; and Dr. Dennis Umali, OYS 2015. Academicians Rivera, Raymundo, and Concepcion are members of the NAST PHL Biological Sciences Division.
With regards to SARS-CoV-2, it has been found to be closely related to a bat virus based on genome comparisons. Meanwhile, the spike protein, which facilitates the entry of the virus to host cells, was found to be a common site for mutations among coronaviruses including SARS-CoV-2 as observed in the emergence of variants of concern (VOCs). Dr. Nadala also shared that the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to evolve with some mutations conferring increased transmissibility while others lead to decreased severity of disease. According to Dr. Nadala, such continued evolution of the virus in this direction can lead to the circulation of less pathogenic variants and the reduction of severe COVID-19 cases and deaths. Based on this, he is also optimistic that the pandemic will be successfully controlled by next year along with increasing vaccination coverage and the recent development of potential treatments.
With regards to livestock and poultry viral diseases, Dr. Dennis V. Umali, associate professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of the Philippines Los Baños and 2015 Outstanding Young Scientist (OYS), presented models of viral evolution and examples of viral diseases affecting the poultry industry. He highlighted that viral evolution is faster in livestock and poultry due to their short generation time and the large size of populations being handled in farms. Among the examples of viral diseases presented by Dr. Umali were Newcastle disease virus, avian influenza, and infectious bronchitis virus. Among these, some strains of avian influenza were known to also infect humans such as the H5N1 and H5N6 strains. He also presented the possibility of vaccine-induced viral evolution wherein vaccines that do not prevent viral transmission can create conditions that support the emergence of more pathogenic strains.
According to Dr. Umali, the implementation of strict biosecurity protocols, proper nutrition and flock management, application of immunostimulants and feed additives, and development of more effective vaccines in controlling highly evolving pathogens are important in the control of viral diseases. He also strongly recommended avoiding the mixed raising of poultry species which he referred to as a “recipe for disaster” as this can lead to a disease outbreak.
To formally conclude the webinar, Acd. Concepcion thanked the speakers and participants of the webinar. She emphasized that the presentations clearly showed that viral evolution is a result of the interaction between virus, host, and the environment, both natural and man-made. Likewise, she noted that by understanding the virus’ trajectory, human society can plan its immediate and long-term response with consideration of past and present developments.
The webinar which was conducted through Zoom and livestreamed in the NAST PHL Facebook page, was moderated by Acd. Windell Rivera. Meanwhile, the synthesis of the event was provided by Dr. Pia D. Bagamasbad, OYS 2019.
NAST Philippines, the nation’s symbol of commitment to science, is an attached agency to the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) mandated by law to advise the President and the Cabinet on matters related to S&T and recognize outstanding achievements in science and technology. For more updates, follow NAST Philippines’ (@nastphl) social media accounts. (Ryan John P. Pascual/NAST PHL).