Jose Poveda: "Sars-CoV-2 will always be with us"

José Poveda, in the laboratory of the University Institute of Animal Health and Food Safety of the ULPGC. / COVER

The reality is stubborn. Coronaviruses are elusive and the pandemic continues. This realism has cost the professor of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at the ULPGC, José Poveda, criticism.

The veterinarian José Poveda has a lot to do with viruses and bacteria. In his laboratory at the University Institute of Animal Health and Food Safety of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (IUSA), he cultivates and studies different microorganisms. He has also taken part in the development of vaccines to defeat, above all, diseases caused by mycoplasmas, bacteria that lack a cell wall and are commensals, parasites or pathogens of animals, humans, insects, fish and even plants. His broad vision of epidemiology is glimpsed in his appreciation of the pandemic.

- In the last two years, he has positioned himself quite a bit in the face of the pandemic as an epidemiologist and connoisseur of coronaviruses. Have you made many enemies for it?

- No enmity, but there are colleagues from other specialties who have disagreed and have not agreed with my vision because, I must admit, that my position has been heterodox. I have not followed the official guidelines and I have used my knowledge and experience to predict what was going to happen based on some models and knowing some parameters that SARS-CoV-2 presented and how it was transmitted.

- The official discourse has been contradictory and changing.

- In a first phase, due to total ignorance of what we were facing. From the beginning, the capacity of this agent to be classified as a microorganism of a security level 4 was ignored and it was classified as a microorganism of level 2. If from the beginning, in January 2020, our health authorities foresee that a microorganism of level 4 can reach our country, they must raise the alarm and prepare us for an epidemic. From that moment it was ruled by the lack of knowledge of the transmission capacity and the susceptibility of individuals. Our population was unscathed. The head of health emergencies at the Ministry of Health said that there were only going to be a few cases, he was the general in charge!

- He wasn't in charge of much. It was recognized that there was no scientific committee to manage the emergency.

- Only him and some officials. He had all the weight and responsibility to foresee what he could happen. There were epidemiologists who saw it coming, but they were not heard.

- Beyond the lack of foresight, what do you think of the management of the pandemic? We had a curfew until a little over a year ago.

- Many lives were saved. We had nothing, only to separate ourselves from the possible contagion of a virus for which we were not prepared. We had no vaccinations. And even so, more than 100,000 people have fallen due to the pandemic in our country. What is evident is that neither our health authorities in Spain nor any health authority in any country was prepared. These are problems of the structure and functioning of the World Health Organization that must be resolved in the future.

- Could doors be put on Sars-CoV-2 at first or was it impossible?

- If we had wanted to contain it, it would have been contained in China by stopping the flights immediately. But that threatens tourism, the movement of people and economic activities. They tried to do light things, with posters in airports, but they were useless. We didn't even have masks and we put up signs. We were not prepared.

- We put a lot of hope in vaccines, but are coronaviruses so difficult to tackle?

- The problem with coronaviruses is that they are RNA viruses with a high capacity for mutation. Veterinarians know this because we have been dealing with different animal coronaviruses for years, for example, the one responsible for feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) or avian infectious bronchitis; a disease with which we have been fighting for 40 years and using vaccines, inactivated first and live attenuated later... We have used an arsenal of vaccines against avian infectious bronchitis and we have not yet managed to control this disease. Veterinarians knew what we were facing and that vaccines were not going to stop the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. In addition, it was a vaccine made with a fraction of a small part of RNA that encodes the spike protein of the virus, which is also highly variable. We have seen that perhaps the best vaccines are live attenuated vaccines, although they have drawbacks: reversion to virulence. They are the same as the virus, but after removing their virulence, the ability to cause damage. These vaccines generate protective humoral and cellular immunity. With live attenuated vaccines we managed to extinguish smallpox and rinderpest.

- With this virus so difficult to control, will the pandemic last forever?

- It is clear that we are not going to make SARS-CoV-2 disappear. The virus and its variants will always be with us. In this generation and in subsequent generations, there will be a tendency towards balance between us, the hosts, and the agent -SARS-CoV-2 and its variants-. We will have seasonal waves that will, over time, decrease in virulence until, in later generations, balance is achieved. But this will not be seen by this generation and possibly the next. We must try to have controlled seasonal epidemics without having large pandemics. Influenza viruses and coronaviruses generate short-term immunity and this is important from the point of view of the susceptibility of individuals, since those who have recovered become susceptible again after a short period of time. There are diseases that generate long-lasting immunity... for life, such as smallpox.

- We have had strong restrictions and now we have normalized life. Do you think we have calibrated the damage?

- The restrictive measures saved lives but, two years and six waves later, there is a pandemic fatigue that has made people relax, that they think that with the vaccines and, having passed one or two events, they are immune. The reality is that the new variants BA.4 and BA.5 are infecting subjects with three doses and that they have even passed the omicron variant. That is an awakening to the harsh reality. The pandemic is not over, although for administrative purposes it may seem so. We see it daily with hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths.

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