I have been working with microorganisms for about 15 years now in the Department of Molecular Virology at the Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics (CING). During this time, I have had the opportunity to work with some fascinating viruses such as Hepatitis C virus, Hepatitis B virus and HIV. My latest virus adventure however was far more complicated both professionally and personally.
I had just returned to Cyprus following a sabbatical at the Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel) where I worked in the field of microbiome research, a unique experience studying the role of microorganisms in human health and disease in one of the most successful labs worldwide in the field headed by Prof. Eran Elinav. Shortly after my return to Cyprus we were closely following reports of a novel virus spreading through Wuhan China. As the Covid19 tsunami spread from China to Europe, the distant events unfolding in Wuhan China that were happening somewhere else suddenly became a reality in our sheltered, protected lives. Even then we were hoping that it would bypass us … but it didn’t! By that stage, the spread was classified as a pandemic, an ominous indication for things to come.
As the confirmed infections spread to Europe and before we had any cases in Cyprus, the Department of Molecular Virology, like countless other times (during numerous epidemics and a previous pandemic), was ready to offer support to our Ministry of Health. The Ministry designated our Department as the Cyprus reference laboratory for Covid19 related testing due to the multiple layers of expertise in numerous aspects of viral infection and its pathophysiology.
In the early days of European infections there were two schools of thought: 1) implementation of mass screening and tracing while imposing gradually stricter lockdown measures (majority of European countries), 2) advise on social distancing, do not implement lockdown measures and allow natural herd immunity (Sweden being the classic example). In Cyprus we opted for the former conservative approach and followed WHO and ECDC recommendations that altogether proved effective. The coronavirus screening floodgates opened and the samples were arriving in their hundreds on a daily basis. The entire Virology team at the CING set aside any fears of coronavirus that were prevailing and made sacrifices in their personal life to be involved in the 24/7 screening process (we conducted one of the highest rates of testing worldwide). My situation was complicated because my wife was abroad at the time as she is the Ambassador of Cyprus in Israel. I was alone in Cyprus with our two sons (aged 7 and 9) that were at home experiencing the joys of online schooling. It was a challenging time for the whole family. My wife remained in Israel to continue her important mission considering the very dynamic and solid partnership between our two countries, I was working in the lab from early in the morning until late at night (including weekends and public holidays) while our two boys were at home. They kept asking me whether we found a potion in the lab that will kill the virus or whether mummy in Israel knows someone that will find a way to kill the virus. I did my best to explain the situation but it is quite a bit for two young kids to understand. I savored the moments that I was able to take them out around the neighborhood so they can ride their scooters, of course after sending the all-important message to receive approval first. After the message was sent the kids would sit there eagerly awaiting the approval, asking me if the government is allowing us to go out.
Life at work was a challenging and at the same time rewarding experience. The long hours and heavy workload took their toll but at the same time knowing that I was contributing by working on the front line for the greater good was important to me. There was also a tremendous spirit of comradery in the lab that gave us all the strength to keep going and I sincerely feel that it is a great honor and privilege for me to be working with such an amazing team in the Department of Virology at the CING. The Department head is Prof. Christina Christodoulou, a scientist with 20 years of experience at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the driving force behind the great work conducted here.
It is not clear how things will develop with Covid19. There may be difficult times ahead although we all remain hopeful that things will be manageable. What is clear is that we have all experienced unprecedented times that have been difficult but we persevered. What is also clear is that for most of us this has been a time for inner reflection and a time to realize what is truly important in our life.
*Stavros Bashiardes, PhD Scientist | Associate Faculty, CSMM Department of Molecular Virology The Cyprus Institute of Neurology & Genetics | Cyprus School of Molecular Medicine and member of the 77 board of “New Wave – The Other Cyprus”.