'There will be a Spanish vaccine against COVID-19'

Chemist Rosa Menéndez, the first woman to preside over the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) since its creation in 1937, is convinced that the work carried out since the beginning of the pandemic by various groups from her institution will allow the first Spanish vaccine against covid-19. It also trusts that a more determined commitment to science to respond to the challenges of SARS-CoV-2 lays the foundations for Spain to be among the countries that allocate the most funds to research.

The president of the CSIC asks "do not be overly alarmed" before the coronavirus

The president of the CSIC asks "not to be alarmed in excess" before the coronavirus

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Upon his appointment he said that "We must make politicians understand that scientists are useful to the country". Three years later, would you say you have succeeded? What is there left to do?

In these three years we have made considerable progress in bringing science closer to society. The pandemic has contributed in an unexpected and unwanted way to society's understanding of the importance of science.

The strategy that we proposed two years ago with the launch of interdisciplinary thematic platforms that address ambitious and high-impact initiatives has represented a really important step. These platforms have fostered collaboration between research groups from different disciplines, pursuing a common objective aimed at solving a specific problem and consequently directly applicable to society.

Of course there are many things to do. We have 2021 ahead with many challenges focused on relaunching our country after the blow suffered in this terrible pandemic. We must continue working with enthusiasm to promote quality science, to facilitate the transfer of the knowledge generated, to impregnate society with scientific culture, to increase our international projection, to streamline the daily work in our institution, to continue improving our scientific results. and technicians and to achieve the deserved recognition of the work of our scientists.

The pandemic has shown that politics and science are more intertwined than the general population probably believed. Do you think the "science must be followed" message appropriate when there are other factors to take into account?

I think that after a situation like the one experienced in the last year it has become clear that science plays a fundamental role and the solutions to mitigate the impact of an unknown virus undoubtedly involve promoting research and the development of knowledge in a continuous way. Managing a pandemic of these characteristics and its consequences, which are many and affect all areas of life, requires putting economic, social and political issues into the equation. It is also science to evaluate the social impact of decisions and to design the most appropriate ways to implement them for the population.

The Ministry of Science has achieved the best budget in many years thanks to the covid funds. How do you see the long-term future when this european support ends?

The Government of Spain, like that of the European Union, has taken a very important step by assigning Covid funds and funds from the science and innovation recovery mechanism to ensure solutions to the pandemic and to develop different initiatives in strategic lines related, for example, to the environment, energy, artificial intelligence or aging, which constitute fundamental challenges for the society. It is essential that this injection of funds is maintained over time to continue with the projects undertaken and develop new ones and work in a calm way.

It is impossible to think that two years of generous funding will solve structural funding gaps in science and innovation. The challenge for everyone is to take advantage of these funds appropriately and lay the foundations for Spain to definitively advance various positions in a funding effort in science, so that it is able to respond to what society demands of it at all times.

In addition, this pandemic has shown us that society can also mobilize, adding its contribution to public funds, which are always the basis of our projects. In this case, to launch more than 100 projects in the search for solutions to covid-19 we have had funding received directly from the Ministry of Science and Innovation, from competitive calls such as those launched by the Carlos III Health Institute or by different autonomies and various foundations. We have also had the invaluable help of donations from a large number of companies and individuals, to whom we are very grateful for their support and what recognition and trust mean.

In this sense, will the pandemic mean a before and after for the financing of science?

In my opinion, yes, and I hope so. At this time, society is aware of the role that science plays in the progress of a country. This has been reflected in the rise in the chapter on investment in science in the general state budgets for 2021, recently approved. It is very necessary that this investment in science, motivated right now by the pandemic and the need to promote the recovery of the country, is maintained over time.

Scientific progress requires a continuous investment, not a punctual one, to develop. In science there is no room for improvisation. We are still far from the levels reached in other European countries and, after the pandemic, I think it has been proven that investing in science is investing in security and well-being.

The pandemic has generated a climate of extreme polarization, in which the population is positioned even on technical issues such as epidemiology and virology. What can scientists do to appease this climate we currently live in?

We were aware of the need for information to combat the anxiety that the situation experienced during the pandemic was causing in the population. For this reason our scientists have participated very actively from the beginning in dissemination and outreach activities. It is fair to acknowledge the great effort made by all of them, working tirelessly in the laboratory and looking for time to explain what was being done, resolve doubts and combat hoaxes.

The role of science is to communicate with scientific rigor, based on known data and scientific experience obtained up to that point. Spain does not have established and permanent structures for this task, so individual scientists are the only spokespersons before society.

In recent months, much has been heard about the importance of the social sciences in understanding and fighting the pandemic. Do you think they get enough attention?

Groups in the area of ​​social sciences and humanities are being very active within the Interdisciplinary Thematic Platform Global Health, aimed at finding solutions to the pandemic. 300 research groups participate in this platform in more than 100 projects that cover, in a coordinated manner, all aspects related to the pandemic, including the impact on the economy and society. Projects that deal with the construction of houses, the influence of the pandemic on our way of life, the impact on our elders and our young people, on our structures and social relationships.

We need to reconsider our own model as a society and we must do so not only hand in hand with economics, but also with philosophy, sociology, and history.

There is a lot of talk about the mental health effects of the pandemic. Do you think it would be necessary to analyze them with respect to researchers? Does the CSIC have any plan in mind to study this question?

Researchers working with the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the front line "physically" have always had well-established laboratory protocols, those adequate for working with dangerous organisms. As for mental health, it is true that in the current situation they may have been subjected to greater pressure and stress level, both personal and professional, and that this could take some kind of bill. That continuous effort, without rest, and without the "compensations" that the pandemic has taken from us all, it is evident that it can leave a trace. And the worst thing is that it will be difficult for this level of demand of the problem to decrease in the coming weeks, and the commitment of our researchers will not be relaxed either. Different surveys are being carried out to assess the impact of the pandemic on research personnel.

It is necessary to have contrasted data to know well the situation, or situations, analyze the variables involved and design models that mitigate the consequences of the pandemic. This is applicable to all sectors of society.

Much has also been heard in recent months about how the pandemic is negatively affecting female researchers. Do you have a program in place to alleviate the negative effects they may suffer?

Promoting equality in science has been a priority at the CSIC for many years. The CSIC Commission for Women and Science was created in 2002 as an advisory body for the Presidency and has been working since then analyzing and trying to improve the situation in our institution. Although much has been improved, and currently the glass ceiling at the CSIC is more favorable than that of the University or the European average, some aspects still need to be improved.

The results of a survey, in which CSIC centers have participated, have shown that, in times of pandemic, there has been a greater burden on women in family and domestic tasks, who have also taken on more arduous jobs. Still, the participation of scientists in the Global Health Platform is equal.

The coordinator of the Platform is a woman, Margarita del Val, and a large number of the ongoing projects on that platform are led by women. Perhaps the most important measure that we must address is the future of telework, and its implication in the family conciliation, from a positive perspective, which needs analysis, reflection, agreement with workers' representatives and regulations.

There are several Spanish vaccines under development by the CSIC. Do you think we will see a Spanish vaccine, especially after that of Mariano Esteban has given such promising preliminary results? Now that there are other approved vaccines, can further research be a problem?

I am convinced of it. At the CSIC, we are developing three different vaccine projects, with three different approaches. All of them are progressing satisfactorily and work is being done in parallel with the private sector for their production. The CSIC-BIOFABRI vaccine developed by the group of Mariano Esteban and Juan García Arriaza of the CNB-CSIC, in collaboration with the Spanish company Biofabri of the Zendal group, is the one that is most advanced in its development at the moment and we hope that the clinical phase can begin in a few weeks, after the excellent results that are being obtained in the laboratory. We have full confidence in it, as well as in the other two vaccines, which are advancing in their preclinical phase.

The existence of other vaccines on the market should not interfere with the development of new alternative vaccines. It should not be viewed as a race in which there is a winner. All the options developed can play a very important role in achieving immunization of the entire population, which is currently impossible to do with the existing options.

The Conversation

East Article was originally published in The Conversation. You can read it here.


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