Although the entire world is eagerly awaiting the vaccine against the novel Coronavirus, all the studies currently underway lack fundamental information that guarantees the effectiveness of the treatment. That’s what Italian virologist and veterinarian Ilaria Capua say, current director of the One Health Center of Excellence, at the University of Florida, in the United States.
The expert insists that in none of the vaccine projects it is known how long immunity against COVID-19 lasts in the body because it is a very recent disease. Capua became famous in 2006 for having isolated the bird-flu virus and published its code so that it would be in the public domain. Today she is one of the main references in Italy in the debate on COVID-19, the subject of her latest book, “The After. The virus that forced us to change our mental map.”
She reflects with us on the following: “Would you make a vaccine whose effects last for a month and must be administered every month? Of course not. Let’s say the virus began to hit us clearly in March. We worked for two months to develop the vaccine and it arrives in May. We inoculate patients in June and July have already passed two months, that is, it is not known how long the immunity lasts. “
“What they say so far is that it lasts two months. If it will last four, if it will last six or if it will last a year, we still do not know. Therefore, it seems to me, that any statement is premature,” she says.
Cheap, effective, and durable
According to the virologist, the duration of immunity is also very important due to costs. As it will be necessary to vaccinate a large part of the world’s population, the vaccine cannot be excessively expensive. So in addition to being efficient, it must be durable. Although developing the vaccine is the main goal now for many scientists, for Capua the Pandemic has brought many other problems that must be discussed and resolved.
“What should be part of the public debate at this point is what we will do next time to avoid such chaos. Do we have a plan?” She asks. “We need to work in the cities. What happened in Milan was not the same as what happened in Rome, in Assisi or Perugia (all in Italy). In New York, something different happened to Tallahassee and different to what happened in Houston. We must try to understand what are the weaknesses, not only of the virus but of our organization”, says the virologist.
“We are fighting against the characteristics of this virus, which are important, the virus plays the role of a virus, but the Pandemic is made by us. The Pandemic is the people who take the virus ‘for a walk’, who do not comply with the rules and insists on living as before, “she adds.
She also believes that it is necessary to improve communication between the scientific world, governments, and society. “I have been working in this field for 30 years and, like me, many other people. They can accuse us, scientists of many things, except that we did not warn about this.
In 2010, I spoke about the arrival of a Pandemic in a TED talk in the city of Como, in Northern Italy. And it wasn’t just me who talked about it. Bill Gates also talked about this and nobody cared. So of course we have to make this communication efficient, do a better job,” says Capua.
When asked if China’s delay in warning the world about the virus would have also been a communication problem that contributed to the Pandemic, she argues: “I do not allow myself to criticize the Chinese authorities.” “Understand what was happening in such a large country, with 1,400 million inhabitants, where inequality is scary and, above all, they have the memory of SARS …”, she begins to say. “At the time of SARS (2002-2003), when the Chinese authorities announced the existence of the disease, they were wrong about the virus that caused it, they said it was caused by a paramyxovirus and they made a fool of themselves. So it is likely that before getting confused again, they decided to wait another week,” she concludes.
The role of WHO
Capua also does not criticize the role played by the World Health Organization (WHO) when the crisis began. “They say that WHO is linked to China. I think the same problem would have happened (if the virus had spread first) in Italy or elsewhere. It took months to understand what was happening. But I can say that the fact that the United States wants to dissolve the WHO certainly does not help the general balance,” she says.
For the virologist, the role of a supranational institution like WHO in coordinating international actions during a Pandemic is fundamental, but the institution effectively needs to be rethought because, throughout the crisis, it has shown some weaknesses. The Pandemic is not a meteorite”. The debate on these issues is urgent and necessary because, as Capua and several scientists around the world claim, there will be other Pandemics shortly.
“Pandemics do happen and they are not like the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs. During the last century, from 1900 to 1999, there were four pandemics. At the beginning of this century, five or six potentially pandemic viruses appeared. Some circulated, but stopped. , like SARS, Zika, Bird-flu, while others have not stopped, like (those of) COVID-19 or Swine flu,” she explains.
“The big problem with this Pandemic is that nobody had even a shred of immunity, while in other pandemics there was always some (immunity crossed by) other viruses that happened before.”
The scientist also affirms that, although the losses registered so far have already turned COVID-19 into a great tragedy, the situation could be even worse. And it is that although Sars-Cov-2 is a new virus in humans, it is not among the most aggressive. “Let’s put it like this: if instead of COVID-19 it had been the Spanish flu, without a vaccine, we would be much worse off than we are now.”
Regarding the increase in the number of infections in Europe, the virologist says that she hopes that there will not be a true second wave. “If with the second wave we mean a return to serious clinical cases that require admission to the ICU, I am optimistic that this will not happen.” “First of all, because now there are many more ICU beds. Second, because the elderly and people at risk have understood how the situation is and are more attentive. But there will certainly be outbreaks of the disease,” she lists.
In the case of Brazil and the United States, the scientist does not speak of a second wave. “For there to be a new wave, it is assumed that there has been a brake on contagions and, in these two countries, this has not happened. The Presidents of Brazil and the United States decided that there was no need to do anything, and then the virus does what it does,” she says.
Another problem that would have made the spread of the Coronavirus evident, according to Capua, is man’s predatory relationship with nature and how harmful it can be for humanity itself, since SARS-Cov-2 is a zoonosis that jumped between species, from mammals to humans due to invasive contact with wildlife.
Even so, the Italian virologist has an optimistic vision of the future, a fact that she reveals in her latest book when she labels the pandemic as “black swan” (a rare event). “The Pandemic is full of destructive energy, but also regenerative energy. We need to be able to save and transmit that positive energy. There were many things before the Pandemic that we did not like,” she recalls.
“We could leave them behind and try to do things differently. In my field of work, I mean to find a balance between human health, animal health, and plant health. Ultimately, the health of the environment,” she concludes.