By 09 April, 2021 - 10:20pm 2 views
The new coronavirus has killed around 1% of those infected, according to data from the first wave in Spain. That fatality, which reached a chilling 12% in men over 80, was enough to paralyze the planet and force billions of people to hide in their homes. Virologist Amelia Nieto , born in Madrid 69 years ago, has spent half her life fearing something much worse: the leap from birds of a highly contagious flu virus with a lethality rate greater than 40%. "We would fall like flies," he warns. It is not an unfounded fear. Nieto ran the only laboratory in Spain dedicated to basic research on the human flu virus, at the National Center for Biotechnology (CSIC), in Madrid.
The virologist retired on February 15, 2020 and, being the only one in her team on a stable contract, her group of eight specialists disappeared with her. A few years earlier, the same thing happened with Juan Ortín's laboratory, the other great reference for influenza virus research in Spain. When the scientist retired in 2016 , his group, also at the National Center for Biotechnology, was dismantled. The largest public science body in Spain, the CSIC, has lost the two main laboratories that studied the flu virus, a pathogen that could kill 80 million people if a pandemic like the one in 1918 repeats, according to warned two ago years a committee of the World Health Organization.
Nieto has devoted most of his career to studying the battle between viruses and infected cells. The latest research by his group showed that, in rare cases, the flu virus can multiply in the cells of the heart and cause sudden death in patients. The disappearance of Nieto's laboratory is a symbol of the situation of Spanish science , weighed down for a decade by job insecurity, lack of budget and a suffocating bureaucracy.
Question. You retired on February 15, 2020 and your group died
Response. When I retired, as there was no one else with a stable place, the group fell apart. Is this reasonable? We were practically the only group in Spain that was dedicated to basic research on the human influenza virus, with a lot of invested resources, both human and financial. They were very good people, spectacular, in their forties, with experience. Between Juan Ortín's group and mine, we have trained about 40 people. Is it logical that Spain will allow itself the luxury of closing these laboratories when we retire? This has neither head nor tail. Spain cannot allow that.
Q. Has your group completely disappeared?
R. There is no one. My group fell apart. In recent years I stopped hiring new people to do my doctoral thesis, because you can't suddenly turn off the light and say: "Guys, you're going to the streets." I warned them in advance that my forecast was to retire, so that they would go looking for life. I cannot assimilate that very good, super-trained people are not consolidated. We have fought, but they have had to make a living. This pandemic has been the coronavirus, but it could have been the flu. What was practically the only laboratory in Spain for basic research on the human influenza virus would not have existed in the face of a flu pandemic? This has neither head nor tail.
“Is it logical for Spain to allow itself the luxury of closing these laboratories when we retire? This has neither head nor tail ”
P. Your case is no exception.
R. It is the same thing that happens to the people of Mariano Esteban's laboratory [leader in the CSIC of an experimental vaccine against covid], for example. They have been working on viruses for 15 years, extending contracts. This is neither sensible nor logical. Politicians fill their mouths with scientists, but they have kept us low. You already know what you have to do for science to prosper, it has been invented: you need reasonable financial and human resources. Or it doesn't work. The groups in Spain have one person or two, which is the most that can be managed based on a scholarship from there and a contract from here. Science can't work like this. Now suddenly the coronavirus arrives and there is a little more investment , but is that going to be sustained? Or is it simply that we are with the coronavirus?
Q. When you see that you are going to retire and your group is going to disappear, do you comment on it to the president of the CSIC [Rosa Menéndez]?
R. You know perfectly well. I did not call the president, but the authorities of the CSIC and the Ministry know it, because it is not only Amelia Nieto's group, it is a general question. Everyone knows that in Mariano Esteban's group there is no one consolidated at the moment. The groups are maintained thanks to the fact that the group leaders manage to make successive contracts. But it is not sensible that people in their 40s, and also with incredible professional capacity, have temporary contracts every year or every two years. That's not the way science is done
Q. As you say, the pandemic was coronavirus, but it could have been a deadly flu virus. I would have arrived with you turning off the light in your laboratory .
R. Indeed, with me turning off the light and with Juan Ortín's laboratory turned off four years ago. And with many others that will be extinguished. What are you going to do if you live on your boss's contracts? It's like an SME: if the boss leaves, the SME is destroyed. There are a lot of very good bands in Spain that are on the razor's edge.
"In Spanish science you have to get into a knife and make a renovation from top to bottom"
P. Three leading researchers wrote in 2015 a very tough letter in which they basically said that the CSIC was a dinosaur and it was necessary to eliminate it and build another organism. What do you think of the CSIC, now that you are retired and can speak freely?
R. The CSIC is an organization that has become obsolete and must be renewed, but if the problem were only the CSIC we would not go wrong. It is the CSIC, the universities, the Carlos III Health Institute, the public research organizations ... In Spanish science you have to get into a knife and make a renovation from top to bottom. Everything is so bureaucratic, it is all so difficult, hiring staff is such a big problem ... How are you going to do good science?
Q. If another pandemic virus arrives next year, more lethal than the coronavirus, and It is flu, are there specialized laboratories in Spain?
R. There are many laboratories that work in epidemiology and in other aspects, but in basic mechanisms of the human influenza virus there were our laboratory and Juan Ortín's ... Now I don't know Yes, that of María Montoya [another CSIC laboratory that works with swine and human influenza viruses, but from the point of view of the immune response] and I believe that no one else that I know of.
Q. Do you go into bars ?
A. No, I stay on the terraces, as a precaution. The mask protects you, but not 100%, among other things because it leaves holes [points to the sides of the face] and viruses arrive through the air. Zero risk does not exist, but if you are on a terrace with your mask on and you take it off just to drink, not to chat, the chances decrease. There are many irresponsible people, but there are also people who are simply tired. But the virus does not know that you are tired.
"The mask protects you, but not 100%, among other things because it leaves holes"
Q. What is your worst nightmare? Could anything worse than the current coronavirus come?
A. Yes. Just as the coronavirus has its famous spike protein, the flu has two proteins on its surface, which are called hemagglutinin and neuraminidase. There are two types of hemagglutinins, called H5 and H7, which are not normally found in humans, but are in birds. Viruses that contain these H5 or H7 hemagglutinins have not been able to transmit from person to person, they have only been able to transmit from birds to humans with much, much, much difficulty. But, when they do, the mortality rate is around 40% -80%. What is my worst nightmare? A flu virus that has an H5 or an H7 appears and is transmitted from person to person. That would imply mortalities between 40% and 80%. This coronavirus has a mortality percentage of the order of 0.1% -2%, it is not so far from the flu, what happens is that many more people have been infected. My worst nightmare is a flu virus capable of spreading like the coronavirus and with mortality rates of between 40% and 80%. We would fall like flies
Q. Is it a matter of time or is there something biological preventing that from happening?
A. The H5 and H7, fortunately, have never been transmitted from humans to humans, but there is a possibility that they acquire changes that allow them to be transmitted. That has been my worst nightmare my entire life, not now. All of us who work on the flu, every time an avian H5 or H7 comes out that infects humans a little bit, we pray that it is not transmitted. Fortunately, it has never been transmitted, but that is the biggest nightmare of those of us who work with the flu virus. The mortality of SARS was of the order of 30%, but the mortality of some of these avian viruses is 50% or 80%. It would be terrifying.