By Lasya Vankayala

By Ofure Itua

COVID19 Demystified began with my lab being shut down due to the COVID19 pandemic. “Go home,” said the lab manager, poking his head quickly out of his office, “until campus opens again.”

I went home. I sat in the living room and watched the news and felt my heart break when I saw the fear and uncertainty in everyone’s eyes. I realized that I was lucky, immensely so, to have the scientific education that I did. I was lucky to know what a virus was, to know how it infects cells, to know what sort of treatments and preventative measures could be put in place. I was lucky to be able to read the latest research and keep up to date on the efforts from around the world. Most importantly, I was lucky because I knew at an instinctual level that no matter what happened I wasn’t going to be facing this pandemic alone.

I knew that science was fighting for me. I knew it always had been. And that knowledge brought me comfort. COVID19 Demystified was born of a desire to share that comfort. I wanted to find a way to share the latest research with people who didn’t have the same background as me. The key goal of COVID19 Demystified has remained unchanged from this earliest iteration: our goal is to bring COVID19 research to the public by presenting it in layman’s terms. No jargon or complex terminology- just pure science.

On March 20, 2020, I made a website using WordPress. I was the only author. We had no expert reviewers, no editors and a website that barely functioned. That evening, I sat in my backyard and wrote two articles- one highlighting work from Scripps Research Institute and the other explaining the principles of mutation.

Eventually, the website needed money to develop further (a site with ads and without a proper domain doesn’t look great). I reached out to WordPress and the Schulich Leader Scholarships, who were happy to help with the funds needed. Thanks to them, the website now looks a lot better.

Soon, the people around me got wind of what I was doing and insisted on jumping on board. Thanks to the Schulich Leader Network and some of our first authors, I connected with groups like STEM Fellowship and the Royal Canadian Institute for Science. These groups started to send their volunteer authors to help us. People found us- through Reddit or Google or word of mouth. Our team grew enormously as I received the same message over and over again: ‘I think what you’re doing is important. I want to help.’

We gathered more authors. I asked some professors at UBC, including Dr. Scott Covey and Dr. Brett Finlay to act , professional scientists who would read out posts to ensure scientific accuracy and faithful interpretation of the research. I received offers of help for everything from web development to social media marketing. We cleaned up our site, built up a marketing team, gained a Twitter presence and set up collaborations with illustrators to promote our articles via a visual medium. Additionally, I started to get emails from across the world- from people that I’d never met before and, if it wasn’t for this project, never would have met.

Soon our volume of incoming posts was so high that I was scrambling to get them all expert reviewed in time. I put out a call for virologists and I got an answer so beyond anything I could have anticipated. Offers of help poured in from virology researchers from as far away as the Netherlands- . All of them reached out with the same sentiment again- ‘I think what you’re doing is important. I want to help.’ Our team of expert reviewers more than tripled overnight.

COVID19 Demystified is now nearly four months old. We’ve crossed 21,000 views from 86 different countries. We’ve collaborated with amazing initiatives from across the world including COVID Graph (based in Milan, Italy) and the COVID19 Physician’s Hub. We were featured on the Transcripts blog, based out of the University of Toronto. We were even included in a Canada Day video showcasing innovators combating COVID19! Our posts undergo a rigorous, well established editorial process that ensures that every single post we put out is held to a high scientific standard. We’ve been advised by experts in science education and communication and have had a chance to work with some of the top virologists in the world. People are actually reading our posts, and it feels like we’re making a difference.

             Did COVID19 Demystified become what I expected it to? Most definitely not. If anyone had told me that it would’ve grown to this degree, I might’ve been too scared to start. I didn’t know anything about running a website, let alone a scientific communication initiative with a team this big. I dove into this headfirst, but then again so did our authors, and our editors, and the expert reviewers. COVID19 Demystified has become a collaboration of scientists from across the world and career levels. It has served as a meeting place, a communal goal and a central cause that highlights the attitude of scientists around the world: ‘This is important. I want to help.’

             COVID19 Demystified is almost five months old. It appears, unfortunately, that COVID19 is going to be part of our ‘new normal’ for some time now. We’re going to have to live with the guidance, with the social distancing protocols and with the new world that we find ourselves in. We’re going to have to put our trust in science. Part of that means making science accessible to everyone- because how can we ask people to trust something they don’t understand? The research we’ve been demystifying has shifted from investigations into the origins of COVID19 to overviews of the latest vaccine trials and deep dives into air transmission of the virus. So, what comes next? More forging forward. I intend to keep this project going for as long as I can, both as a resource for the people who want to learn more and as a repository for those in the future who decide to look back. I hope that when we have the first working vaccine, COVID19 Demystified is going to explain the science that brought us there. Until that day comes, we’re going to keep explaining the masks, the medicines, the treatments and tests. Science keeps going. It keeps fighting for us and  we’re going to keep the spotlight on the work being done, every step of the way. This is important, and we want to help.

COVID19 Demystified is currently recruiting for authors, editors and illustrators. If you want to help bring high-level scientific knowledge to the masses and build trust in science, contact Lasya at contact@coviddemystified.com.

Lasya Vankayala is entering the final year of her Biochemistry degree at the University of British Columbia. She is passionate about research, writing and scientific communication. Lasya has been working in academic research labs for the past 8 years and recently completed a co-op placement with Amgen British Columbia. She plans to pursue a PhD in Biochemistry.