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Interview with Arinjay Banerjee

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

📷 University of Saskatchewan

Journalist: Anna Yang

Interviewer: Welcome to SciSection! My name is Anna and I’m a journalist for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Arinjay Banerjee, a postdoctoral researcher at McMaster University who studies bats and infectious diseases and who was a part of the team that isolated the novel coronavirus. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me Dr. Banerjee.

Dr. Banerjee: Oh, thank you Anna.

Interviewer: So, to begin, could you give us an overview of your education and your career so far?

Dr. Banerjee: Oh, yeah, okay. Man, that’s like so many years ago. So I did my undergrad in microbiology and biochemistry at the University of Mumbai in India. It’s one of the oldest schools in India that does biochemistry and micro. So I finished that, did my undergraduate, moved on to a master’s degree in virology, so I started that at an institute in India, and moved to Canada for my master’s thesis at the University of Saskatchewan. And after my master’s I stuck around, worked at VIDO-InterVac and the University of Saskatchewan where I did my PhD on bats and coronaviruses. So I started doing bats and coronaviruses six years ago. And then I’m postdocing here at McMaster in Karen Mossman’s lab. Between my degrees I did some other externships at OneHealth and whatnot, travelled to Australia for a bit, travelled to Germany for a bit. I think my academic life’s been a lot of travelling, so it’s not just been science but it’s also been a lot of history and sightseeing, I suppose.

Interviewer: Yeah, that sounds wonderful. So, you chose to study bats and coronaviruses six years ago, so how did you initially make that decision?

Dr. Banerjee: Well, I think it was coincidental. When I was doing my master’s thesis, I was in Berlin at the Max Plank Institute for a summer scholarship. And while I was doing a summer training, I met my former PhD supervisor in Berlin. And he had a talk on bats and viruses, and of course it was bats and Ebola viruses back then, because in 2014 we had the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. So we thought about this, and I looked at this talk, and he was ambitious. He wanted to start a research program on bats in Canada, and we didn’t have a research program in Canada on bats back then, six years ago. So I approached him, and I asked him if he could take me on as a master’s thesis student. It was risky, because we didn’t have the tools to do the science, so I showed up at his lab and while doing my science I realized that we could do coronaviruses as well. And nobody predicted this, I suppose, but yeah. So, at VIDO-InterVac in Saskatchewan they had the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus. So Darryl Falzarano was a PI who had just moved from the States, and he’d just started his lab around the same time as I was starting my PhD. So it was coincidental that across the street had someone working with MERS and I was working on bats. So I wanted to take my bat expertise and kind of bunch that with Darryl’s coronavirus expertise, and build a niche for myself.

Interviewer: Yeah, that sounds great. So you were on the team that isolated the novel coronavirus, what was the whole process of isolating the virus like?

Dr. Banerjee: It was pretty exciting. When COVID-19 broke out of China, it wasn’t called COVID-19 back then. It was called some sort of an unknown pneumonia back then. So when that happened, you know, some of us who work with coronaviruses, we often speculated what this virus might be. So we quickly realized that if the virus were to get on a plane, it’s going to be across the planet in a couple of hours - or, maybe a couple of days. So we put together this team that had expertise on working with high pathogenic viruses. Now, there are a lot of skill sets that you need to work with these pathogens, especially working in high containment labs, and anybody can learn those, it’s not rocket science, but you need years of training. And we didn’t want to risk new individuals, when you’re working with a brand new pathogen. So we put together a team; people from NML (National Microbiology Laboratory), people from Sunnybrook, and myself from McMaster, so we had expertise working in high containment labs, we got samples from Sunnybrook, from Dr. Samira Mubareka’s lab, and we isolated it.

Interviewer: So what does having the novel coronavirus isolated like this mean for the search for a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19?

Dr. Banerjee: Yeah, so that was one of our primary goals, when we went in with the ambition of isolating the virus. Because the Chinese scientists had done it, the Germans had done it, the Australians had done it, the Americans were doing it, and we also wanted to be able to do it, to kickstart our own research programs and diagnostics and vaccines and therapeutic drugs. So what we’ve since done is we’ve isolated the virus, and we didn’t hold on to it for any kind of intellectual property or nothing. We sent it out to labs across Canada, so labs from UBC onwards, all the way to McGill and so basically I think we’re sitting at eight or nine universities in Canada, that are using the isolates. And we have different meetings we are aware that people are working on different therapeutic drugs, people are working on vaccine candidates. People are also doing a lot of fundamental and basic science, to answer questions about how does the virus interact with the immune response, that’s one of our major focuses in our lab. We are trying to identify how the virus can attack the human immune response. And if the immune response is sufficient, you deal with the virus straight.

Dr. Banerjee: So yeah, I think we’ve gone in and we’ve actually done what we wanted to do, which is share the virus and make science possible across Canada.

Interviewer: Yeah, that’s amazing. So now that you’ve succeeded in isolating the novel coronavirus, what are some of the research projects that you’re currently working on?

Dr. Banerjee: Yeah, so the two questions that I’m personally very interested in, and there are other projects in the lab but I’ll share stuff that I’m working on. We’ve been looking at how this virus can modulate human immune responses. So to break this down, when the virus infects our bodies, our bodies will launch an immune response. That’s just what we do when we see a virus. But viruses are super smart themselves, they’ve got proteins that can block these immune responses. Different pathogens can do this to different extents. And we’re establishing this knowledge for SARS-2 to identify how this virus can or cannot affect the human immune response. So that’s really one of our key goals, and we’ve quickly analyzed some of the data sets, we’ve put that out for people to understand. And we’re doing follow up studies so we’ll have a more complete story out hopefully by the end of next week. And the other question that I’m chasing is how bat cells respond to SARS-2. Because the speculation is that the virus evolved in bats and likely jumped from bats to humans, so we’re super interested in identifying how a reservoir host, such as bats, respond to the coronavirus and how and why is it different from the response we see in humans.

Interviewer: Those two projects both sound very interesting, so could you walk us through a typical work day for you as your work on these projects?

Dr. Banerjee: Uh, a typical workday. It’s been crazy, I’ve lost track of time for the last eight months, I think. So you wake up and go, and I guess working in a high containment lab it’s a little different. You can’t often step out, because if you step out it’s a lot of dropping off clothes and your breathing apparatus and all that stuff, so you have a heavy breakfast, go in, do your science, come back out, and I would like it if that’s where it ended, but it doesn’t. You come home and you’ve got to do all of your experiments in your regular lab, because once the infections are done and once you’ve safely inactivated your samples, that’s when your work really begins. When you start analyzing all the infection-induced responses. And once you’ve done that you come home and you’ll hope that you’re done, but then you start analyzing all the data that you’ve generated. And then you want to go to bed and you hope you’re done, but then you go to start write all the grants that will fund your science. So I think that it’s been a never-ending cyclical process over the last eight months, and I think I’ve gotten used to it. I used to be tired, but I think that’s just kind of the state of my life, and you just kind of get used to it. But it’s been good. It’s been fun. What I’ve seen is, there’s so much collaboration within Canada for the science and to get out of this pandemic. That’s been amazing. I’m connected with some of the best scientists that we have in Canada, it’s great.

Interviewer: Well, I’m glad you’re having fun, even though you’re exhausted. I just have two more questions for you. The first is: do you have any plans for what you want to do in terms of research once the pandemic is over?

Dr. Banerjee: Yeah. I’ve been doing this science before we had a pandemic, and I think this science is going to be critical to avoid future pandemics. Because if you look at the statistics on the WHO and OIE websites, you’re realize that more than 70% of infections come from animals. If you look at WHO’s blueprint of priority infections, six out of those ten infections come from bats. So it’s unfortunate that we’re living in a pandemic, but we shouldn’t be blindsided by the possibility of the next epidemic or pandemic. So I think I’m going to continue this line of investigation and understand how and why this virus evolved to jump from animals into humans.

Interviewer: Yeah, I’m glad to hear that, and hopefully we can prevent pandemics like this in the future. So, one last question: do you have any words of advice that you’d like to share with listeners who are interested in pursuing a career in the sciences?

Dr. Banerjee: What I’d say is it’s okay to not know what you want to do in life. Just be passionate about what you really want to do and things will fall in place. I don’t believe in luck, there’s nothing as luck, I suppose, but what I do believe is if you work hard enough, then the chances of you getting lucky increases. And this is not my quote, I probably watched it in a movie, or I read it somewhere, I think, but I really feel that’s true. You’ll fail in science. You are going to fail in science, and that’s the beauty of it. Your life is going to be interesting, every day when you wake up. You’re not going to go and repeat something. You’re going to fail and you’re going to back up and you’re going to figure out why you’ve been failing. And I think that makes you very patient in life, not just because you’re doing science but everything in life seems trivial, you know. Because you’re dealing with bigger problems at work. So I think if you want to be a scientist, come with an open mind. And come with this mindset that it’s okay to fail. You know, as an undergrad you often want to be a perfectionist: great scores and great grades and A+ student, and I was like that myself. And I wanted the best grades. But I realized that it’s not about your grades anymore. You’re going to fail and your failures are going to teach you more. If everything works for you, you haven’t really learned much, you know. But if you fail, you’ve learned five different ways of fixing that problem. So you really learn something. So come with an open mind, and it’s okay to fail.

Interviewer: Yeah, thank you, that’s very insightful. So that does bring us to the end of the interview Dr. Banerjee, thank you again so much for joining me today.

Dr. Banerjee: Thank you for having me.

Interviewer: And for everyone listening, that’s it for this week of SciSection. Make sure to check our podcast, available on global platforms, for all of our latest interviews.


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