Research in the time of COVID-19: Q&A with Dr. Zabrina Brumme

Jul 31, 2020 | News

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed how we all live and work. It’s also changed how we do science. At Providence Health Care, our research community has been faced with shuttered labs and offices, financial uncertainty, and a rapid shift to virtual research environments.

In this Q&A series, we’re asking PHC researchers and research staff to reflect on their experience over the past few months and share how they’re adapting to the new world we live in.

Who are you?

Zabrina Brumme, Laboratory Director at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE), and Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University

How has COVID-19 impacted your professional life?

The BC-CfE laboratory is a clinically accredited laboratory that provides precision viral medicine testing services to clients across Canada (mainly, we perform drug resistance testing for HIV and Hepatitis C virus). We also do basic research towards the ultimate goal of curing HIV. This spring, when research curtailments first occurred and COVID-19 cases were beginning to increase in BC, we reached out to our colleague Dr. Christopher Lowe, who heads the St. Paul's Hospital Virology laboratory (the first hospital-based laboratory to perform COVID-19 diagnostic testing in BC), to offer support and collaboration. We obtained some funding support, and four months later our labs are still working together closely! Specifically, we are looking at ways to improve COVID-19 diagnostics in BC and we are cross-validating methods to sequence SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, so we can better understand viral transmission.

How has COVID-19 impacted your personal life?

It has not been easy to balance work and family during the pandemic. As the director of a lab that delivers a clinical service (HIV drug resistance testing) and a Virologist who, like many others in Canada, turned their lab's attention to COVID-19, I spent even longer hours in the laboratory during the pandemic than before. I could not have done this without my Mom, who takes care of our five-year-old son when he is out of school. Despite the long hours I have managed to spend time with family: our son got a new mountain bike for his birthday this year, so we have been going on bike rides every Sunday in parks around Metro Vancouver.

As B.C. reopens, and as research activity gradually resumes, what does the “new normal” look like for you?

The priorities now for the BC-CfE laboratory are to keep delivering our precision viral medicine testing services to our clients across Canada, and to move forward an even broader molecular virology research programme that now additionally includes SARS-CoV-2. We can do this because of the phenomenal staff at the BC-CfE who kept our precision viral medicine testing service operational all throughout the pandemic, as well as the talented researchers and graduate students at BC-CfE and SFU who rapidly pivoted our research programme to SARS-CoV-2.

Has the pandemic resulted in any unexpected benefits for you?

Yes in fact it has. The pandemic gave us the opportunity for the BC-CfE laboratory to work closely with the St. Paul's Hospital Virology and Medical Microbiology laboratories, as well as the leadership of Infection Prevention and Control at PHC, on COVID-19 related clinical research. The opportunity to work together has strengthened the bond between our groups. Also, we're hopeful that our work will improve COVID-19 diagnostics in BC and lead to a better understanding of how the virus spreads.

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