Dr. Marc Windisch is head of the Applied Molecular Virology Laboratory and director at the Institut Pasteur, in South Korea, which is a leading global translational research institute, active in the eradication of infectious diseases, and research for drug discovery (http://www.ip-korea.org/). We asked him about the challenges posted by COVID-19 around the world and how South Korea had recorded such a low mortality rate.
First, there was Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) in 2003, then swine flu (H1N1) in 2009, now Covid-19 in 2020. Why so many pandemics in the last fifteen years? Is there no way to predict them and protect ourselves?
Globalisation and the increased mobility of people and goods seem to be among the major causes of the frequent appearance of virus outbreaks. These days, in approximately 24 hours, anybody can go anywhere, and, of course, this is an opportunity for pathogens to accompany travelers without the patient being aware. The high population density in some parts of the world also helps diseases spread quickly.
Local virus outbreaks cannot be predicted. But the outbreak of a potential pandemic can be inferred by several factors. Besides population density and mobility of the population by plane, train, and so on, one of the most important factors to consider is the virus transmission rate—that is how many people can be infected by a single infected individual. At the moment, COVID-19 spreads statistically to 2.5 individuals (based on preliminary data). To put this in perspective, one Ebola patient transmits the virus to 2 other individuals, in case of mumps to 4.5, and measles to 16 individuals. Every virus with a transmission rate greater than one can potentially lead to a pandemic.
Preparedness will play a key role in protecting our lives and economies in the future. Governments will have to learn the hard way how to react quickly and with adequate measures (stockpiling of personal protective equipments, training for medical staff, strengthened healthcare systems). Financial investments targeting infectious diseases are needed to develop new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics to prepare us for the next, potential pandemic.
Let’s talk about financing. What role do you see in the fight against pandemics for multilateral development banks like the European Investment Bank?
The EIB is focusing, among other things, on innovation and skills and small businesses. In these areas, a lot can be done and has to be done. For example, supporting fundamental and applied research will generate new opportunities and new businesses. New ways of education are needed, such as eLearning, which requires fast internet access anywhere. That means 5G. The digital economy does not exist in Europe as compared to the USA and China. And of course, life sciences need a significant boost to develop novel and innovative drugs, vaccines, diagnostics, etc. Healthcare, surveillance, and information technologies. Also, the production of “basic” personal protective equipment. What can we do to reduce dependencies? What can we do to increase competitiveness? How can we reduce production costs?
I have been living in Asia for more than 10 years, and I am amazed by the entrepreneurial mind-set of people here. Asians are risk-takers, and the risks are mitigated by governmental banks and funds and by venture capital. We have to ask the general question, how can we foster innovative start-ups, and what can the EIB do to encourage entrepreneurship? And how to reduce the risks for start-ups, SMEs, etc.?
However, even during this devastating crisis, there are opportunities to make significant changes for a better future by holistically addressing climate changes, globalization, pandemics, etc.
Do you think that national health systems should cooperate more to fight future pandemics?
National health systems have to be prepared and financially supported to handle outbreaks of pathogens in the future. What happened with COVID-19 must be a “lesson learned” for all governments... Especially inside the European Union, cooperation and solidarity among the member states is more than necessary, and not only during a pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) is another crucial instrument for orchestrating a global response. If a country develops and validates useful diagnostic tools, other countries should be able to adopt these technologies quickly, to avoid any waste of time, which costs lives. Common measures should be taken as soon as possible to reduce dramatic effects on the economy.
Sars and Covid-19 are genetically related. Is there a relationship between the outbreaks of the two pandemics?
There is a relationship between the two viruses (SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2); both belong to the family of Coronaviridae, which are enveloped, positive-sense, single-stranded RNA viruses. Both are zoonotic viruses that originated from an as yet uncertain animal reservoir. And both viruses are transmitted from human-to-human via aerosol droplets and cause respiratory diseases. However, there are differences in transmission and mortality rates.
Is the nature of the Covid-19 virus fully known? Why are there people who become infected a second time? Why can even young people, apparently in good health, become infected and die in a very short time? Are there different forms of Covid 19, some more aggressive than others?
Currently, the nature or origin of COVID-19 is not known. There are a few reports that the virus may have been originated from bats or pangolins, but it is still unclear. There are even rumors that the virus might have been “escaped” accidentally from a laboratory in Wuhan, which seems to be unlikely.
Whether patients can be re-infected by the same virus is not certain yet, but it cannot be excluded. The causes behind the so-called re-activation, the detection of viral genomes that were undetectable, is not fully understood. Scientists are investigating. However, in both cases, the clinical symptoms are expected to be mild because the patient’s adaptive immune response, as a rule, generates antibodies that neutralize the pathogen. Unfortunately, in biology, it is not always black or white. Therefore, an exemption from the rule might be possible.
Unfortunately, there are cases where “healthy” patients without underlying health conditions died quickly after contracting the disease. For sure, this is alarming. It seems that the virus disclosed a health precondition that was not recognizable before.
There are different variants of COVID-19, especially RNA viruses which generate random mutations during the multiplication of their genomes. It can’t be excluded that this leads to a higher virulence, however, was not shown for COVID-19 yet.