By Julia Vera
Partner & Managing Director

Linking COVID-19 and the Ocean: A reader’s digest to SOPHIE’s Strategic Research Agenda for Ocean & Human Health

The COVID-19 crisis provides unfortunate evidence of the need to roll out science-based policies to global challenges, placing the Ocean at the heart of Europe’s Research AgendaSOPHIE’s Strategic Research Agenda for Ocean & Human Health sets out a clear pathway towards that end. This is our readers' digest to this inspiring document, produced under the leadership of the European Marine Board in the framework of the SOPHIE Project.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) published recently an article that unveiled that the test being used to diagnose COVID-19—as well as other pandemics like AIDS and SARS—was developed with the help of an enzyme isolated from a microbe found in marine hydrothermal vents and freshwater hot springs. In the article, Virginia Edgcomb, a WHOI microbiologist who investigates fungi and bacteria living in the deep sea and deep subsurface biosphere explains that researchers have found marine microorganisms that produce antimicrobials –basically, chemical weapons that help them fight off other organisms- and molecular mechanisms that help them resist viruses. She further signals that “almost every antibiotic we have was produced by microorganisms. Who knows—maybe we’ll find new antimicrobials when we start to look in deep ocean habitats.” Edgcomb says the coronavirus outbreak underscores the importance of funding basic exploratory research, which may help lead to a cure or diagnostic tool in the future. 

As if anticipating the need to give voice to Edgcomb’s cry for research support, the Seas, Ocean and Public Health in Europe” (SOPHIEProject has invested two years of pan-European researchanalysis and consultation to launch a Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) highlighting the need to further look into the relationship between the Ocean and public health. At a time when urgent actions must not impede institutions to also allocate expertise and resources to plan longer term, strategic responses to anticipate and respond to future public health challenges, SOPHIE’s SRA provides guidance and insight to guide these efforts. 

The SRA advises action needed to inform data collection in Europe to monitor connections and changes that could impact oceans and health. The Agenda has identified 3 priority areas:

  1. Sustainable seafood and healthy people.
  2. Blue spaces, tourism and wellbeing.
  3. Marine biodiversity, biotechnology and medicine. 

Image: SOPHIE's SRA Focus Areas

What are the specific, key questions that the SRA proposes to address? Below a summary, with some additional context from our own harvest: 

Sustainable seafood a healthy people

The Ocean is an essential food provider. Seafood is a great supplier of essential compounds for the human body -proteins, vitamins, fatty acids, essential amino-acids and minerals- which are a basic pillar in a healthy diet. It is also a fundamental source of protein  for many people around the world, acting as the primary fount for over 1 billion people worldwide. Its consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Seafood also constitutes the main economic activity for many people all over the world, with seafood’s total exportation value reaching almost €134 billion per year (54% of which comes from developing countries). However, fisheries are collapsing. Most fish stocks around the world are being overexploited: we are taking too many resources too quickly, not allowing them to recover. More than 33% of the world’s marine fish populations are already overexploited, and almost 60% are about to reach that level, while only 7% of the exploited populations are currently sustainable. 

If we consider that any food produced from the Ocean needs to be nutritious, sustainably harvested, safe and available to everyoneSOPHIE’s SRA argues that we need to support research that leads to:

  • Improved understanding of how pollution and climate change will impact marine food sources.
  • Development of management measures that adapt to changes in fish and seafood distribution and other properties.
  • Social licence for new marine food sources, and means for ensuring quality and sustainable access for consumers. 

Blue spaces, tourism and wellbeing

Back in the 1750s, doctors observed that being near the Ocean appeared to have a positive effect on human health. This thought was later scientifically proven, concluding that living (or being) next to the Ocean entailed many health benefits: people grew ill less often and experienced lower mental distress than those living inland. Nowadays, being close to the Ocean is also associated with a more active lifestyle, with higher levels of physical activity. Surfing, for example, is associated with a reduced risk of dementia and cardiovascular disease. In a study completed in 2016, the health benefits of water-based recreation were estimated to save up to a minimum of €200 million per year in healthcare in the UK alone.

Image: A surfing day in the Basque Country (c) Acero Surf Eskola

As concern about the deterioration of physical health and mental wellbeing across European countries raises, social prescription of blue spaces seems to be gaining advocates. For those of us working in coastal & marine tourism, it is easy to get immediately excited about such a window of opportunity. However, the risks and benefits need to be better identified and balanced. For example, bathing water quality is a major concern for coastal communities in Europe. Even in cases when water quality is good, people frequently swimming or engaging in water sports at sea have been found to suffer a greater risk of gastrointestinal, respiratory, ear and eye problems than people who stay outside of the water. In addition, massive affluence of people to coastal destinations in the summertime often means that water treatment plants cannot cope with demand, resulting in uncontrolled discharges that aggravate the risks, maybe outweighing the benefits. Even if tourism is ever changed in a post COVID-19 world, coastal ecosystems are so vulnerable to human impact that balancing their use and their conservation requires acknowledging trade-offsHow do we maximise the health benefits of blue spaces, while mitigating impacts on the environment? 

SOPHIE’s SRA calls for research to understand how blue spaces can positively impact health and wellbeing in Europe, allowing to: 

  • Develop further evidence to demonstrate and quantify positive health impacts of interaction with blue spaces across Europe.
  • Understand in greater detail the pathways and mechanisms which lead to positive health outcomes.
  • Explore the environmental impacts of increased human use of blue spaces and balance benefits with sustainability. 

Marine biodiversity, biotechnology and medicine

As research on biotech applications to tackle COVID-19 is proving, marine species can contribute new compoundsbiotechnology products and applications to current and future health challenges. Unfortunately, around two thirds of marine species remain undiscovered, in the midst of a period of unprecedented species extinction. More research is needed to understand the fundamental unique characteristics of marine species in Europe before it is too late, advises SOPHIE’s SRAHow can better understanding marine ecosystems help to target approaches to sustainable biodiscovery? 

SOPHIE’s SRA argues that the answer is a more strategic approach to basic marine research, coupled with the protection of marine biodiversity. Research is needed to support:

  • Better understanding of marine ecosystems and greater collaboration to enable more strategic approaches to biodiscovery.
  • Development of new technologies to overcomes bottlenecks in the biodiscovery pipeline.
  • Improved knowledge on the unique characteristics of marine species and their use in biomedical research and applications. 

(c) J. Sanchez (Submon)

Call it coincidence or personal bias. But it strikes me how looking for solutions to global challenges -be it climate change or pandemic diseases-
has scientists looking into the very same direction for responses: the Ocean. It is a good start that the United Nations has proclaimed a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). 
May we acknowledge the COVID-19 crises as unfortunate evidence of the need to roll out science-based policies to our shared challenges, placing the Ocean at the heart of Europe’s Research Agenda


Read SOPHIE's SRA and take action by visiting www.sophie2020.eu/SRA  

The SRA was produced by project SOPHIE (Seas, Oceans and Public Health in Europe), funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, grant agreement No 774567. 

Useful links:

SRA: sophie2020.eu/SRA

SOPHIE website: sophie2020.eu

SOPHIE resources: sophie2020.eu/resources

SOPHIE projects and publications: sophie2020.eu/activities

SOPHIE people: sophie2020.eu/people