‘As many as three coronavirus vaccines are in phase 3 of clinical testing, which is the last phase prior to approval. I think that by the end of the year we will have vaccines approved for use,’ Nemanja Despot Marjanović, Serbian scientist from Broad Institute in Boston, which is partners with the prestigious Harvard University and MIT, said in an interview for Kurir. Using samples from patients across the globe, our interlocutor has participated in the research conducted in the previous months at Harvard and MIT looking at how the coronavirus attacks the human body.
A great many people are still convinced that the coronavirus only attacks the lungs. That is definitely not true?
Unfortunately, what we can see is that, although the coronavirus is primarily a respiratory virus, i.e. it attacks the respiratory system (the nasal cavity, throat, lungs) and causes the greatest amount of damage there, there are other infection foci as well. The research conducted at the lab where I am doing my PhD has revealed that this virus attacks the cells of the heart, kidneys, abdomen, and the intestines, even nerve and immune cells. We also see patients with the coronavirus at the clinic who have a clinical picture that corresponds to our results – they have specific heart problems, mild epileptic seizures, and diarrhea.
The whole world is looking to scientists for a vaccine. Can you say with certainty now that it will be available by the end of the year?
I think that there are over 140 different vaccines being developed at the moment. As many as three vaccines are in phase 3 of clinical testing, which is the last phase prior to approval. To be frank, I think that by the end of the year we will have vaccines approved for use. However, the problem is whether we will have a sufficient number of vaccines to give to people. As far as I understand, some companies have already started the production, even though they are not sure if the vaccine will have the right effects. The idea of such an undertaking is that, if the vaccine passes all the clinical trials, there is a certain number which would be ready for immediate use.
Who should get vaccinated first?
The people at the front line will likely be prioritized – medical staff, for example, as well as vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those suffering from chronic illnesses. They can perhaps hope to have it by the end of this year, but that is optimistic too. I think that by the next spring there is a good chance that a greater number of people gets vaccinated. Of course, you should take into account the fact that what we see now, in terms of developing the vaccine, moves at the speed of light compared to what was the case before, so anything is possible.
Estimates say that the coronavirus will be around until 2022.
I think that the coronavirus will stay with us even longer, as has the flu virus, for example. But, it is hard to make predictions, because we still do not understand how this virus mutates. What is key to defending ourselves against the coronavirus at the level of the population is developing herd immunity, on the assumption that individuals are immune after they have had the coronavirus. This is still being debated as well as researched in the scientific community.
Can you explain what exactly is herd, or collective, immunity?
Viruses are obligate parasites, which means that they cannot multiply and spread without a host. So, if there is no host that the virus can attack, it cannot harm you. The concept of herd immunity implies that there is a certain percentage of a given population who are immune to the virus, which in turn reduces considerably the number of possible virus hosts and slows down or stops the spread of the virus. Herd immunity is the percentage of people who need to be immune to the virus, whether because they have recovered from it or because they have been vaccinated against it, to reduce the its spread. If you have a population in which 60 percent are immune to the coronavirus, then the spread of the virus is more difficult. It is important to achieve herd immunity at the level of the population. At the level of the individual, I think there are a few things that we can do since we still do not have herd immunity. The first important thing, as with herd immunity, is to reduce the spread of the virus. Reducing the spread of the virus can be achieved by avoiding social gatherings or practicing social distancing and wearing a mask. It is important that people work on strengthening their immune systems, so if the coronavirus attacks them, their immune systems can respond quickly and defend them against it.
What are the best ways to strengthen our immune systems?
Plenty of sleep and rest goes a long way towards strengthening the immune system, as does avoiding stressful situations, taking vitamins C and D, and zinc. If you prefer natural substances, then you can use ginger, garlic, citrus fruits, Echinacea, shark oil, etc.
So, let us conclude – in the fight against the coronavirus, developing herd immunity is key? Is the Swedish model good?
I think that gaining herd immunity is the best way to defend ourselves against this virus at the population level. Herd immunity can be achieved in several ways, and what Sweden does is one such way: letting the people and their immune systems fight the virus by themselves, creating herd immunity in the process, as everyone who has had the coronavirus and survived it ought to be immune if the coronavirus should strike again. The issue with the Swedish way is how good the immune response is which occurs during an attack of the coronavirus in a patient. This is still being researched. The other way to gain herd immunity is a vaccine. A vaccine gives all of us immunity against the coronavirus, stopping its spread.
Doctors say that a new wave of the coronavirus is expected in the fall. They also warn that there could be a clash with the seasonal flue. How serious is this situation?
Honestly, it is very serious, for a couple of reasons. First, we still do not understand how the coronavirus mutates and whether in the fall it the same virus would hit or a mutated corona perhaps, making things worse. Further, if you factor in the fact that cold weather helps the spread of the coronavirus and viruses in general, that aggravates things even more. Third, the flu is the problem, because our immune system can be weakened considerably if both viruses attack it at the same time. Also, let us keep in mind that the flu virus also mutates, so we make a new vaccine every year. I am not saying that all these worst-case scenarios will take place, no one can say that now. But, on the other hand, there is a possibility that this happens, and the situation can be very serious. This is why I would recommend to everyone that they do whatever they can to protect themselves. This includes strengthening the immunity, avoiding social contact (or socializing while maintaining distance and wearing a mask), washing hands, plenty of sleep and rest.
The World Health Organization has recently said in a statement that research is being conducted into whether the coronavirus spreads in the air. What is your comment?
I think it is very important to conduct this research. What we can definitely see about the coronavirus is that it is highly resistant to environmental conditions – it stays on certain surfaces as long as a few days. I think it is important to understand how long it can survive in the air, as this would give us a clearer idea regarding how to maintain social distance, etc. The second thing we can definitely see is that temperature and air humidity affect the transmission of this virus – we can see that they are correlated. We still do not know whether there is also a causal link there. I think that higher temperatures and increased humidity reduce the spread of the virus, and I hasten to add that they are correlated. Now we need to figure out whether temperature and air humidity have a direct effect on how long the coronavirus can stay airborne and how infective it is. Or whether nicer weather results in more people outdoors, which slows down the spread of the virus, as we know that the virus spreads more easily in closed spaces. I hope that this research is completed as soon as possible, because I think it may have a bearing on how we live until we have a vaccine.
Let us put an end to the divisions on whether to wear a mask or not. Does a mask protect us from the virus, and should it be worn?
Excellent question. It should be pointed out first that nothing protects us 100 percent, unless you can close the door of your home and stay there until all of this goes away. I have not seen scientific research that included a single detailed study aiming at demonstrating that masks reduce the spread of the coronavirus. We know that in medical conditions (i.e. at hospitals, health clinics, etc.) masks can provide a level of protection. However, it is important to note that these are very sterile, closed spaces, where people change masks often. Whether masks will have such an effect under normal circumstances, I could not say. On the other hand, we know that where there is a physical barrier (mask), the flow of particles can be reduced. Therefore, thinking logically, a mask is bound to reduce the spread of the virus particles when we sneeze, cough, etc. The question is by how much and whether that is enough. I would say that in this case we are not sure what the percentage is, but five percent protection is better than zero percent. Personally, I would wear a mask as a precaution, because I think that it adds a level of protection, however minimal it may be. Of course, practicing social distancing is much better than wearing a mask, but that is not always possible. Also, there are other kinds of protection – here at MIT they made a plastic helmet you put on your face, and there the protection is better. Bearing in mind how little we know about this virus and that we still do not understand why some people are hit harder than others, I would advise everyone to take all the precautions they can, including wearing a mask. I am convinced that in a situation where we do not understand the danger well enough, we ought to do everything in our power to protect ourselves.
The main goal of the young scientist – the fight against malignant diseases
CANCER WILL BE A CHRONIC ILLNESS, TREATED EASILY – BY ANTIBIOTICS
Your primary work at Broad Institute concerns finding a cure for cancer. You are working on your PhD which you will defend before the biggest names in science. How far advanced is the science of that area? Earlier you said that cancer will be just a chronic illness, and that in about ten years’ time it will be treated like bacteria – by antibiotics.
That is exactly right, my primary research concerns malignant diseases. We are in fact trying to understand how to make cancer a chronic illness. What we recently managed to show – at least for lung cancer – is that not all lung cancer cells are the same, and that some are more important for the growth of the tumor and for resistance to therapy. We have identified this group of cells, which we call highly adaptable and plastic cells, and we are currently trying to understand them better, to find out how we can treat them. I truly hope that in ten years cancer can become a chronic illness.
Now, whether it turns out that way remains to be seen. You know, science is slow and biological systems are exceedingly complex. That said, I know that that is my goal and I am not giving up.
On conspiracy theories
5G NETWORK DOES NOT AFFECT THE PANDEMIC
What is your take on the conspiracy theories associated with the coronavirus since its discovery? They range from claims that the virus was made in a lab to claims that the ‘5G network is fuel for the coronavirus pandemic.’
I think that the 5G network theory does not hold water. On the other hand, I think it is hard to say whether it is possible that this virus was studied at a laboratory and then managed to ‘escape’ due to a reckless mistake. But, what I would like to stress here – and which I can see in the results of the research conducted at the lab, as well as in patients at the clinic – is that the coronavirus is not a theory. The virus is really there, among us, and can cause serious problems.
Kurir/ Boban Karović/ Foto: Privatna arhiva
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