Coronavirus infection has seriously altered the plans of many scientists from St Petersburg University. Some cannot travel to conduct joint research with foreign colleagues, others have to stay abroad until the situation normalises.
Oleg Shupliakov, head of the Laboratory of Synapse Biology at St Petersburg University, spoke about himself and his colleagues who went to work in Sweden during the pandemic and now are working on the same floor as the laboratory conducting research on COVID-19.
How did it happen that you went to Sweden?
It all happened more than 30 years ago, when I was a postgraduate student at the Sechenov Institute. My supervisor died, which was a great tragedy. I did, however, pull myself together, wrote an article on my research and sent it to a foreign journal. The article was accepted, published, and I was invited to an international congress with a report. Professor Grillner, one of the keynote speakers there, offered me a postdoc position in his laboratory at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, one of the largest medical universities in Europe. I stayed in Sweden, completed my education, and defended my thesis in medicine. After obtaining a degree, I worked as a postdoc in the USA at the Rockefeller University with the Nobel Laureate Paul Greengard. In 1997, I returned to work at Karolinska Institutet as a professor.
When I was invited to work at St Petersburg University, I was happy to accept the position. I had graduated from Leningrad State University, and it was a great honour for me. We managed to establish the Laboratory of Synapse Biology at the Institute of Translational Biomedicine, and to interest students in our research.
As I understand, the staff of the Laboratory of Synapse Biology of St Petersburg University are now with you in Sweden?
St Petersburg University has a partnership agreement with Karolinska Institutet. I came to Sweden in January together with my colleague Elena Sopova. I intended to return to St Petersburg in mid-March, but the quarantine upset all our plans. In Sweden, no one has ceased or is going to cease working. We can't afford to be idle – the grant assignments are huge! In order to fulfil our obligations under the Russian Science Foundation programme, we proceed with the experiments which must not be interrupted.
A young member of our team, Natalia Akkuratova, is also currently in Sweden. She studies cell engineering and works in the laboratory. It should be mentioned that in 2019 Natalia received an award from St Petersburg University for her publications.
Under the programme of the Russian Science Foundation, we regularly work both in Sweden and Russia. Of course, the fact that I am a professor at both universities makes cooperation easier.
How do your colleagues feel?
No one is depressed or panicking. Everybody goes to work and, of course, strictly complies with the safety rules introduced here. We hope everything will be fine.
What are you working on at the moment?
The main research area of our laboratory is the study of molecular mechanisms of membrane transport, which is responsible for the delivery of substances through the cell membrane. In our laboratory we have developed a number of very interesting model systems. They allow us to look inside the synapse and see how different proteins control the movement of synaptic and other vesicles – intracellular organelles. They store, transport or destroy various molecules necessary for the functioning of the cell. We are very interested, in particular, in how all these processes are connected in neurodegenerative diseases.
Have you considered research related to the coronavirus, too? That's the most important topic right now.
We use viruses in our work, but not coronavirus. Our laboratory at Karolinska Institutet is on the same floor as the COVID-19 laboratory. They have special robots and other modern equipment. It looks very futuristic, like footage from a science fiction movie.
Aren't you afraid of such neighbours?
I learned about it when they started installing the equipment. To be honest, at first I felt uncomfortable. However, the laboratories studying coronavirus observe the strictest safety rules. There have been no cases of infection, I don't think there will be any. All the scientists in the building have become accustomed to such a neighbourhood.
The students from St Petersburg probably miss your attention now, don't they?
Not in the least! Despite the fact that I am now in Sweden, every week we hold seminars with students from St Petersburg University and follow the programme. Students are given homework assignments. One of our laboratory specialists, Pavel Butilin, monitors strictly their performance. For communication we use the Teams domain of St Petersburg University. The programme works without any failures. During the last seminar, we tried Zoom. We have very active students – in the evenings they shower me with questions. We write reviews; we discuss scientific articles together; and we work on texts. Aleksei Shishkov, a student, is working on the 3D modelling of membrane processes in synapses, which is a very interesting project. Everything is on course. I feel alive when I see that the students are doing a great job.
Do Swedish students also study online?
They do. The teachers deliver lectures online. The Zoom platform turned out to be very efficient. You can easily lecture for the whole course. I think that in a while, distant working will become more common in our daily life, saving money on the logistics. For example, a regular appointment with a doctor could be reduced to taking tests and then communicating with a specialist via the internet. This will reduce traffic, and make the planet cleaner. In Sweden, this experience is already implemented.
Not long ago, one of my post-graduate students from Karolinska Institutet defended his thesis. It involved participants from the United States and two Swedish cities, all of whom worked remotely. The Academic Council meeting was held online. Everything ran smoothly. Online thesis defence is now also possible at St Petersburg University, and this is wonderful, this is the future.
Do you take any precautions to protect yourself from disease?
Absolutely. We must understand that this virus is very specific and highly infectious. I am a member of the senior generation who are recommended to stay in isolation, and I try to avoid unnecessary risks. Sweden is a very disciplined country. All people keep their distance, they stopped shaking hands, and there are disinfectants everywhere.
What measures have been taken by the State against the pandemic?
Everyone who comes to the country must observe two weeks' quarantine. Also, all public events have been cancelled. In shops in front of cash desks and in buses at the driver's seat, for example, there are safety screens - large screens to prevent anyone from breathing on staff. Industrial companies continue to work. The factories in the north of Sweden, I think, have hardly noticed the pandemic at all. It is large cities such as Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö that are the main sites of the disease. The beginning of the pandemic happened to coincide with school holidays. Many parents went with their children to warmer countries, Italy and Spain, and brought the virus from these places. Unlike many other countries, nobody is fined for being out of the house in Sweden. All measures are guidelines only.
Do cafes, restaurants and gyms work?
It's a bit more complicated. As in Russia, many restaurants have quickly shifted to delivering food. Although, you can still have a seat in some places, they make sure that there is a necessary distance between people. The gyms are empty.
Is there any debate in the Swedish society about the measures that have been taken?
There were serious mistakes at the beginning. For example, the screening of staff in nursing homes was not sufficiently stringent. As a result, many elderly people were infected. Once this became known, people were critical not only in Sweden, but also in other Scandinavian countries. Sweden recognises the mistakes that have been made and speaks openly about them.
Now that epidemiologists and the government have issued clear guidelines, albeit late, the situation has stabilised. Swedish citizens trust their governments. Indeed, the entire Swedish state system is aimed at benefiting the community. It seems to me that Russia is also moving in this direction.
I have seen publications in some Russian media that sound the alarm about the situation in Sweden. We can understand the journalists, they are looking for news, but the information they are spreading is not always accurate. Public sources have published statistics which show that the total mortality rate in 2020 (compared to the period from 2015 to 2019) has indeed increased. However, most of the increase is due to Stockholm where older people and migrants have been infected. In other areas, the impact of the virus is minor. In most regions, the total number of deaths among infected people continues to decline.
Do you share the prognosis that coronavirus morbidity in Sweden will soon decline?
I think that with the onset of warm, dry weather, the ability of the virus to survive in open air will decrease, and thus the number of infections will decrease not only in Sweden but around the world. The immune system will recover and the number of deaths will decrease. In the summer, the figures should go back to normal. Many countries are currently working hard on developing vaccines. We have the necessary technology for that. I have no doubt that within a short time, the vaccines will be created. The problem is that in the autumn, we should expect a new wave of disease, and there is still no vaccine. However, I don't think there's any reason to panic. The Swedish experience shows that if the safety guidelines are strictly followed, the pandemic can be slowed down. People should follow these rules with the utmost responsibility. Coronavirus is a global problem for all of the people on the planet, and we can only fight it together.