Scientific view

On the far side of COVID-19: Penta’s commitment to research preparedness for emerging infections affecting children and pregnant people

14 Mar, 2024

The recent COVID-19 pandemic served as a stark reminder of the vulnerability of children and pregnant people to emerging infections. While the public health emergency may have concluded in mid-2023, the threat of future pandemics remains a looming concern. In this ever-changing landscape, research preparedness takes centre stage.

 

In this interview, we speak with Prof. Ali Judd, who co-chairs Penta’s Scientific Committee and is a renowned expert in paediatric infectious diseases. Prof. Judd is playing a key role in shaping Penta’s approach to emerging infections and child health.

In the landscape of child and maternal health research, preparedness holds a significant position. How does Penta aim to contribute to this field? 

Emerging infectious diseases, like COVID-19, pose a significant threat to global health. These novel pathogens often disproportionately affect underserved populations, including children and pregnant people. During the initial stages of an outbreak, the focus understandably shifts towards immediate containment and treatment strategies. However, the long-term consequences of such diseases on these groups can be significant, yet often overlooked.

Recognising this gap, Penta has been advocating for sustained research efforts beyond the immediate crisis. This includes and goes beyond studying the specific virus at hand – it’s also about understanding the long-term impacts on children and pregnant people, from potential developmental delays to pregnancy complications. By investing in research that addresses these concerns, we can equip healthcare systems to better serve these vulnerable populations in future outbreaks.

What is Penta’s specific research strategy in this area?

Penta’s strategy for research preparedness rests on a two-pronged approach:

1. Understanding the impact on children and pregnant people: Penta is conducting dedicated research projects that delve into the specific needs of children and pregnant people during and after an outbreak. This includes exploring the impact of the disease on their health, development, and access to essential care, as well as the effectiveness and safety of specific interventions. By studying both the short and long-term consequences of emerging infections, Penta aims to fill the knowledge gap that often exists when immediate response efforts, particularly in adults, take precedence. These data are crucial for informing future policies and interventions that address the unique needs of these underserved populations.

2. Advocacy and inclusion in broader research initiatives: Penta actively advocates for the inclusion of children and pregnant people in research efforts on emerging infectious diseases. This involves working with policymakers, the research community, and other stakeholders to ensure that these groups are not left behind when designing clinical trials and studies and formulating public health responses.

What are the latest research initiatives that are driving Penta’s strategy in this area?

Penta’s commitment to research preparedness spans from COVID-19 to a broader range of infections affecting children and pregnant women. Here are some key initiatives that exemplify this approach:

  • ORCHESTRA and VERDI studies: funded by the European Commission, these interconnected studies – starting from their names – examine COVID-19 risk factors, protective mechanisms, and vaccine effectiveness. Penta plays a vital role in both initiatives, leading VERDI which focuses on COVID-19 variants in children and pregnant people specifically and, providing coordination of the paediatric and pregnancy studies in the ORCHESTRA Consortium. These collaborative platforms allow for streamlined data sharing and coordinated responses, ultimately strengthening European preparedness for future health emergencies. Examples of this include identifying how individual studies can work together to maximise results, as well as integrating and harmonising data repositories to increase the potential for future research.
  • SNIP-Africa: also funded by the EU, this project aims to establish a clinical research network and architecture to implement adaptive platform trials in Africa. The network addresses the urgent need for improved treatment of childhood infections in an era of increasing antimicrobial resistance. The project’s approach of utilising adaptive platform trials has the potential to be extended to other geographical areas.
  • CoMeCT (Coordination Mechanism for Cohorts and Trials): This newly launched EU project brings together European research efforts on infectious diseases with epidemic potential. Over the next three years, CoMeCT will act as a coordination platform bringing together European cohort studies and adaptive trials on infectious diseases with epidemic potential, allowing them to act more efficiently.  Penta’s involvement in CoMeCT ensures that the needs of children, pregnant people, and other underserved groups are prioritised in clinical research impacting future pandemic planning.

Thank you, Prof. Judd, for your time and insights. We believe that by prioritising research preparedness with a focus on underserved populations, we can significantly improve global health outcomes in the event of future emerging infections.