"Everyone is running themselves ragged”

The University of Arizona’s Michael D L Johnson is using his knowledge of metal compounds to explore potential therapeutics for COVID-19.

How have you been contributing to the fight against COVID-19?

I started trying to think of how I could apply my research to fighting viruses instead of fighting other pathogens. There's been some nice parallels and I have some virology friends who are working with me and we're hoping to put together some projects that can actually be helpful. I don't do well sitting on the sidelines. Even if doing my part is just helping flatten the curve, I should do my best to do that as a scientist.

Your work looks at metals and bacteria – are you hoping to transfer that specific area of research towards metals and virology, metals and antivirals? Or are you looking at COVID more generally, from an immune system perspective?

Well, although I do have a background in immunology, right now I'm trying to use some of the compounds that we have in our library that are either copper ionophores or copper chelators to see if they could serve as potential therapeutics against either viral entry or viral complication.

Can you tell us what your role at the University of Arizona normally involves?

I am PI of my lab, so my normal role is not just directing the research but it's also managing the business side of things, the human element, making sure people are funded, dealing with the creative direction. I've had to do a lot more work around how we're going to run our lab in this current time, and what safety protocols we're going to have in place to make sure that we decrease the spread and flatten the curve.

I've had to really revamp my teaching for the online format. I recorded my lectures before class and then also had a Zoom meeting with students to make sure that they understood the content. So it’s taking a substantial amount of additional effort.

More broadly, what other COVID projects have clicked into action since this crisis?

I think what's really been wonderful here, and I hope this is something that we continue later, is that there has been a tremendous increase in collaboration, a tremendous increase in sharing resources and willingness to share resources.

You have people who are trying to make testing kits. People are trying to do rapid diagnostics, you have people who are trying to do a number of things, from the long term outcomes of people with COVID to how the virus attaches, or even how can we not clog BSL-3 resources – which is one of the things my project is doing, we're actually doing more stuff in BSL-2.

So, there's no shortage of projects, not only in my department, but also in the epidemiology community. We have a huge connection to tribal land here, as far as the Navajo tribes are in Arizona, so I was trying to reach out to them and get testing kits to them.

Compared to business as normal, what processes have changed – how are you how are you managing to speed things up and, and what's different, owing to this being such an emergency urgent situation?

I think everything that has the word COVID on it is rising to the top of the list. But I think there's just a lot more people trying to offer whatever resources they have, there's a lot more people running toward the fire versus running away from it. You have people saying ‘I don't know what I can do yet, I don't know if I'll get in the way, but I'm going to make myself available to help people.’

That's been something that I think has been tremendous. In this particular situation, people sharing resources left and right and it's not just with our institution. I've reached out to Yale, to the NIH, to people in Europe. We've reached out to probably four or five different groups to get reagents and we've got them all in record time.

When you say people ‘running towards the fire’ is that in terms of their personal workloads? People working long hours working weekends on this?

Yes. Yesterday I ran into a graduate student from a colleague’s laboratory who is working on COVID research right now. He's a great student and he's doing a lot of great things, but he was exhausted. It’s not just the work he’s doing but you have to keep up with what everybody else is doing. All the papers coming out in journals, reading preprints, figuring out what is happening, he was exhausted. But he realised the urgency and he realised the importance and he got back into the ring.

That's what I see on the basic science side, I am absolutely sure that it’s happening on the front line with nurses and doctors and everybody who's working in a hospital too. People who are working on this are literally running themselves ragged trying to figure out how to help and trying to move things forward. Oddly enough, I think when people work themselves ragged in a normal setting, they end up making lots of mistakes and you end up being inefficient. Somehow I think people are harnessing that extra effort, those long hours, but they're also keeping their efficiency. Which is why I think as a scientific community we're making so many strides.

What sort of tools are you using to keep up and make your work and expertise known?

I have lots of journal and bioRxiv alerts that feed directly to my email but my emails grow by an order of magnitude every day, and it makes it very hard. Twitter is that short little bite where I can get all the headlines that are relevant because they've been crowd-sourced and kind of crowd-vetted within the scientific community.

You can't go into depth in everything that you're reading, because there's simply no time – I’m really relying on the scientific community to filter through some of the noise to get the most relevant information – especially as a bacteriologist, virology is not my strong point.

A New England Journal of Medicine article came out and people were sending me Twitter messages saying, ‘hey, you got to do something about this copper thing’. And people reached out to me with ideas and suddenly a project was born and now we're actually doing it.
It took the scientific community, on Twitter, for people to know to filter that information to me and actually helped me understand a way that I could help in this particular situation.

Summarise what you think the response from US scientists has been like so far.

I'm not trying to paint some kind of scientific utopian society here, but I think by and large, everybody is trying to do something within their expertise to help a situation. And if not, they're getting out the way, and trying to flatten the curve, talking to their family members about, hey this is serious, stay inside – they're trying to communicate with their community, you know they're writing op-eds, they're doing something. I think that even if you're not necessarily in research you can.

We have virologists who have in our department who have written op eds for Arizona papers and go online to try and educate people about what this is. So, it's not just a scientific effort, it's also a scientific communication effort and I hope that in the future, that doesn't change. I see all the false narratives that have been coming out and there’s a lot of scientists who are trying to combat that with it whatever platform they have. And I hope that spark stays alive and that we become scientists of the people and not scientists of the elite.

Michael D L Johnson is assistant professor in immunology at The University of Arizona and its BIO5 Institute. His lab explores how bacteria interact with metals. 

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We're looking to hear from RSB members or Fellows who have shifted their research priorities or repurposed laboratories to help fight COVID-19. Contact tom.ireland@rsb.org.uk if you would like to be featured or have any information to contribute to this series.