Science

Coronavirus Diaries: Inside an Emergency Coronavirus Scientist Slack Channel

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Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Slack and iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with scientists Dave O’Connor and Tom Friedrich, who research viral infections at the University of Wisconsin. O’Connor and Friedrich formed a Slack channel on Jan. 22 to coordinate coronavirus research with scientists worldwide. The conversation has been transcribed and edited for clarity by Chloe Hadavas.

Dave O’Connor—Cape Town, South Africa, Jan. 22

On Jan. 22, I was in Cape Town. Over the course of the day, while the impeachment trial was dominating U.S. news, the coronavirus was starting to dominate news coverage overseas. News stations in our hotel were broadcasting headlines about the coronavirus all the time—for about half an hour every hour.

I was there to meet the other members of an organizing committee for an international HIV prevention meeting that will be held in Cape Town later this year. During the pre-meeting, I asked some of my colleagues who research HIV what they were thinking about this coronavirus. A couple said they were starting to look into it, but no one had really advanced plans.

So in the evening, I called my wife, professor Shelby O’Connor, whom I work with in the lab in Madison. I said, “Hey Shelby, you study tuberculosis, and Tom [Friedrich] studies flu, and during the Zika outbreak you were all involved in sharing data in real time and bringing people together to work on the disease. Why not work on this coronavirus?” And we basically said, “You know what? Maybe we should create a group to talk about this.”

That led to a few initial direct messages in Slack between five or six of us at UW–Madison, where we identified the scientists we would bring together. Before I went to bed, I created the Slack channel—it’s a channel inside a Slack that we use for our labs at UW–Madison, but we can invite scientists from outside of the university to participate. At that point, we named it the “Wu-han Clan.” (In January, the virus was still being referred to as the “Wuhan coronavirus.”)

I fell asleep in Cape Town listening to Hang Up and Listen. Overnight, my colleagues in Madison started inviting people to the channel, which led to planning for our first teleconference. We held that the next day, with about 20 or 30 people. I took the call while sitting alone in a chaise by the hotel pool around 9 p.m.

Tom Friedrich—Madison, Wisconsin, Jan. 22

On this side of the planet, I had already been thinking it would be cool to study the coronavirus.
My lab studies influenza, and we look at how avian influenza viruses evolved to become human influenza viruses. So the whole process of virus emergence and potentially pandemic spread is really interesting to my group, and I hoped we could contribute to knowing something about it.

But then, I thought, “Well, I haven’t studied SARS or MERS. I know the scientists who have worked on coronaviruses directly, and they’re almost certainly working on this right now. I probably shouldn’t get involved. What more could I really do?” So I made this decision to let it go.

Jan. 22 was the first day I taught in the UW–Madison spring semester. It was a regular day—I noted administrative stuff I had to respond to later on Slack and email. At noon, I had my first meeting for a graduate-level course on how to give a scientific presentation. Class ended at 1 p.m., and immediately after that I went to another meeting.

When I finished the next meeting, I looked at Slack and was surprised to find there were about 40 messages. The first one was from Dave, saying, “Hey guys, do you think we should study this coronavirus?” And then I flipped down and saw, “Yeah let’s do it!” before I had a chance to even think about it. So I thought, “Well if these guys want to do it, and they’ve convinced themselves that it’s something that we should collectively do, then of course I’m in too!”

We were able to hastily arrange a call with folks here in Madison and collaborators elsewhere within a day.

Tom and Dave—Madison, Wisconsin, Feb. 28

Now the Slack channel has 69 members. (Well, 69 minus the people who can’t figure out how to sign up for Slack with just one ID.) Most are in the U.S., but we also have scientists from, for example, Brazil, Australia, and Europe. Most study viral disease in some way, shape, or form—whether they’re researching the virus side or the host side, whether they’re studying it in animal models, humans, or cell cultures. These are people who are doing laboratory studies to understand how viruses cause disease and how they stimulate an immune response.

We’ve since changed the name of the channel. We originally liked the idea that the Wu-Tang Clan is a collective of artists—something that was founded for mutual support and collaboration—but we’ve learned that names focusing on Wuhan are less appropriate and actually a little stigmatizing. So we’ve changed it for now to “The CoV-Cove,” but that probably won’t stick because none of us really likes it.

We use the channel constantly. This probably doesn’t set a good example of work-life balance in the sciences—and it isn’t like this all the time—but, for example, an hour ago we were at the gym together. While one of us was finishing his workout, the other was checking on what had happened in Slack while he’d been swimming for the past hour. And Tom was actually responding to questions that people asked him in Slack in between weight sets!

So we’ve lost a little of our work-life balance, especially in such a fast-moving situation where things may happen every day that affect the direction of our own research, or that inform the design of experiments we’ve planned. We check Slack, the news, and science Twitter first thing in the morning and throughout the evening to see what the latest developments are.

It’s not as active as it could be, because we learned during the Zika outbreak that there’s such a thing as a Slack that’s too busy. (When we did something similar during Zika, it was a free-for-all, with people posting 24 hours a day. It exhausted us all.) We’ve tried to make sure people have conversations in threads, and we splintered off all media discussions about the virus into a separate channel. We have a higher signal-to-noise ratio: We focus on meeting announcements, meeting notes, and discussions of actual plans. It’s a little bit more pragmatic and serious and lower traffic than what we had before.

The channel certainly has a more serious tone—you kind of have to if you’re going to have a large number of people from different backgrounds participating. We learned with Zika that sometimes being too snarky in Slack and posting stuff that’s way out there can come across as a little bit off-putting.

That doesn’t mean things don’t get a little wild. A week or two ago, one of the craziest things that transpired from collaborating with other researchers via Slack was our realization, as noncoronavirologists, that the coronavirus is an unusual RNA virus. We already knew that coronaviruses use RNA instead of DNA as their genetic material, but most RNA viruses (like HIV, influenza, and Zika) are less stable and evolve really quickly, and they make a lot of errors when they make copies of themselves. Now we know that even though the coronavirus is an RNA virus, it has the ability to sort of proofread and fix the mistakes that happen when it’s replicating.

Plus, we all have our own characteristic emojis. Dave is a thumbs-up guy—he uses that one maybe 80 percent of the time. Tom has recently discovered the “Chef’s Kiss” emoji, and when he hears something he doesn’t like he gives the Capt. Picard facepalm. The “Success Kid” is commonly used when someone does something good. Dave’s graduate student Amelia Haj is a savant at creating Slack emojis—we have more than 250 custom emojis, including a “Don’t Panic” button from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and even specific virus ones.