The UdL leads the largest research project on pandemics and science education in the call PANDEMIAS 2020

Researchers from the UdL and the CERCA centres Agrotecnio and IRBLleida will organise conferences, practical training workshops and round tables on COVID-19 and health

The University of Lleida (UdL) is leading the largest research project funded in Catalonia in the PANDEMIAS 2020 call of the AGAUR agency. The initiative IlerCOVID. Science-based education and communication to combat COVID-19 and future pandemics is the only one of the 35 accepted that has obtained the maximum funding: 350,000 euros. The project, headed by ICREA researcher at the School of Agricultural Engineering (ETSEA) of the UdL and principal investigator of the Applied Plant Biotechnology research group of the UdL-Agrotecnio, Paul Christou, will be carried out for eighteen months in the region of Segrià.

"IlerCOVID is a multidisciplinary proposal that combines artificial intelligence, biotechnology, medicine, nursing, education and communication to tackle current and future pandemics using science-based evidence," explained Christou. The project - in which researchers from different departments of the UdL and the CERCA Agrotecnio-UdL and IRBLleida centres will participate - will generate scientific data and resources to explain the central concepts of current and future pandemics in the population of the 38 municipalities of Segrià in a simple and participatory way. Through talks, practical workshops and round tables, "they will involve citizens in making decisions about health with a critical vision based on evidence", he added.

The project is structured in different areas that address scientific aspects, communication and educational activities. Firstly, they will use artificial intelligence tools to make models with pandemic data and will develop an interface that facilitates both monitoring the evolution of a disease and decision-making. "We will make it available to professionals in politics, medicine and epidemiology so that they can base their decisions on real data," confirmed one of the people in charge of this area of the project, UdL professor Rui Alves, who will work in this field with professor Carlos Ansótegui.

Likewise, Teresa Capell (UdL-Agrotecnio) and Manuel Portero (UdL-IRBLleida) explained that the project also includes the development of candidate components for a vaccine against COVID-19 in rice plants, as well as the characterisation of long-term neurological deficiencies among people who have had the disease. Capell has advanced that they will invite people of Segrià of all ages to participate in practical laboratory experiments.

In this sense, they will work with a transgenic variety of rice from the Ebro Delta. Firstly, to try to produce a molecule that could be used as a vaccine for COVID-19. "Although vaccines have already been developed, our procedure allows us to reduce costs and could be a solution for Third World countries," Capell said. They will also work with the expression of protein S and the RBD receptor to develop a prototype kit for detecting antibodies to COVID-19 that is simple and inexpensive, in line with the concept of "citizen science" on which IlerCOVID is based.

Finally, UdL professor Manel Ibañez, the dean of the Faculty of Nursing and Physiotherapy of the UdL, Judit Roca, and the head of Communication of Agrotecnio, Sofía Sánchez, will organise talks in the municipalities of Segrià on basic scientific concepts related to COVID-19. In addition, they will develop a virtual museum that will visually explain pandemics through history. "Faced with the rise of disinformation on social networks and denialist movements, we see the need to put ourselves at the service of information to refute false news that can trigger real health risks," concluded Christou.

The IlerCOVID project, which kicks off this June, has so far involved the Chamber of Commerce and the Official College of Pharmacists of Lleida. Those responsible for the project plan to add the Lleida City Council, the Provincial Council, the Segrià County Council and other local bodies to the project.

Text: Communication Agrotecnio / Press UdL

The research group of the project