What is your role in SafeConsume?

I am the virologist in SafeConsume, I was approached by the coordinator of the project, Solveig Langsrud, and I was very happy and honoured to join this consortium and my role is to take care of viruses.

What do you think will be the most important benefits/deliveries from SafeConsume?

I think is very important to really influence habits that will lead to a better behavior preventing food-borne transmission of diseases. I think is a matter of educating consumers. We have to know what it has to be done and then we must be able to really communicate what we find to the consumers. I believe this project will have a very good outcome.

As a virologist, how would you define a virus?

A virus a cell parasite that mostly causes diseases but sometimes is beneficial because it has provided us with some genetic evolution that otherwise we wouldn't get. We have been always living with viruses. There is no cell without a virus, there is no host without a virus that can infect this host. We have to cope with this and we have to be ready to coexist with viruses.

How are you involved in the fight against SARS-CoV-2?

I started to be involved in COVID-19 before we had any problems. Right after Christmas vacation I was asked by the Health Department in Catalonia to be part of a specific committee to prevent and to take measures to be prepared. We were worried because in Barcelona we were supposed to have the World Mobile Congress with many people from Asia, from China, so we were worried about this possibility that the virus would entry our country because of this. Finally, the event was cancelled. And then the problem came from Italy, we have, I think, 6 direct flights between Barcelona and Milano every day. Then, we had the first cases, imported cases from Italy of people that were in touch with people from Italy, and then from that on you know that it have been a very efficient transmission. This is the situation by now.

Do you think it will last for a long time?

Well, I don’t know, nobody knows. The first thing is that we are confronting an agent that is the first time we have been dealing with it, so we don’t have data on that. My personal guess is that maybe in mid-May when temperature will start to raise and hopefully we will have the containment that will provide, maybe, the flattening of the curve of cases, probably by that time, by mid-may things will start to get back on track. So, I guess that the cases will go down because transmission will not be that efficient on warm weather, I count on this to help to lower the cases.

Anyway, we will have a better capacity of confronting the virus the next season.

By the winter I count on having a vaccine, technically this is a challenge, but it is a challenge that I believe it will be overcome, so I count on it. But then comes the safety issues, you know that before having a vaccine license you need to have the product going through several phases of safety trials and this takes long. But I hope that by November we will have a vaccine and probably some antivirus products as well. Here in Barcelona we are giving several products that have already used for several viruses, maybe you have heard about hydroxychloroquine, several age related drugs that are efficient against HIV – human immunodeficiency virus, with these you don’t have to go through safety tests because they have already been approved for human use. Anyway, we will have a better capacity of confronting the virus the next season?

What are the symptoms and how are the patients treated?

In 80% of the cases it’s like flu, like an influenza, so you have a headache, maybe some sore throat, very specific symptoms, but then 20% of cases, after a certain time, after 10 days, your symptoms are aggravated, so it becomes a more severe disease, then it goes down and it may cause you a pneumonia. This is strange because even in flu, in influenza, pneumonia is caused by a bacterial infection right after the viral infection. In this case in COVID-19, a virus SARS-CoV-2 causes directly pneumonia, which is a very severe pneumonia. In some patients it causes a severe problem in breathing, what is called the respiratory distress, and these patients require an artificial respiratory system. These are the real problems, in these cases antivirals already used for other diseases, protein inhibitors that have been used for aids are employed with quite satisfactory results; and then an antimalaria agent which is hydroxychloroquine is employed as well with very satisfactory results.

You said in an interview that "El coronavirus hace tiempo que circula enmascarado entre gripe". What would be the main differences between the symptoms of flu and those caused by COVID-19?

Yes, this virus is too well adapted to be just a newcomer, to have just arrived. The most common symptom are similar, the 1918 strain it was a really aggressive strain. Fortunately we are not in the same position now that people were in 1918. Now we have an enormous scientific capacity, we are having an enormous amount of data in 3 months by now, so our capacity to generate data from a new data now is enormous. What we know about the 1918 flu is because those specialists were able to recover the virus from frozen corpses of people that died of the 1918 flu and that is why we know which are the viral determinants of this very powerful agent that was the 1918 flu. Why is corona so well adapted? Why it is so easily transmissible as it is? The virus is only transmitted through these micro-drops and that is why it is very important to keep distance, 1 meter and a half, in order not to be infected by a carrier. These drops can fall on surfaces and then you can get infection by touching these surfaces. We have barriers that we can apply, we can use 60-70% alcohol based disinfectants, diluted bleach is also very effective.

Can the virus be spread through food?

First I have to say that this is a respiratory virus so the main transmission way is by inhalation or through mucosa, or person to person contact. We know from SARS, the original SARS outbreak in Hong Kong from 2003, that probably the origin was through consumption of one of the delicacies in the area which was the civet cat. It is a very nice and cute animal that is a delicacy there, I’ve been there and I’ve been offered to eat one of these guys. So, as I said, the origin of coronavirus is a bat, but then, there is an intermediate host, and eating that intermediate host probably cause the jumping to the human. Maybe it was pangolin, another delicacy, eating or using pangolin in traditional Chinese medicine could have led to this, but maybe pangolin is not the intermediate host.

How can we protect ourselves against norovirus, the virus targeted by SafeConsume, and coronavirus? Are the measures we take against norovirus different from those for coronavirus?

Everything that worked well for noroviruses will work well with coronaviruses as well. Norovirus is a food-borne pathogen, I don’t believe that SARS-CoV2 is a food borne pathogen. Maybe it can be transmitted by food in some cases through the virus drops that could get into the food if someone coughs near them. Heat can destroy the virus, with what concerns foods that can be cooked, but if we are talking about fruits, like strawberries or berries, it is advisable in these times and always to thoroughly wash these products so that you can prevent infection.

The survival capacity of this virus is much reduced compared to norovirus, but still it can maintain infectivity for hours, maybe 48 hours. It is enough to cause problems.

It becomes obvious in the mass media the presence of an induced fear and a subtle reference to the Spanish flu of 1918. Do you think that the coronavirus pandemic can be compared with the Spanish flu of 100 years ago?

I’ve been dealing with viruses for forty years by now and we always thought about having a new virus that will emerge and will cause the death of many people and my particular guess was that it will be a new strain of influenza, but having in mind what happened in the 1918 pandemic with what was called the Spanish flu at that time, 5- million people died at that time, more than the double of people that was killed in the first World War. So, we thought that maybe a new virus with this pathogenic potential could come again, but it hasn’t been a flu virus, has been a corona virus and I could never imagine that this could jeopardised the entire world, from the health side, but also from the economical side. I just hope that we will learn something out of this; I don’t know, maybe to be more prepared to what can happen.

Do you see COVID-19 like a “normal” disease, if a disease can be considered normal, with a well-defined treatment in the future, after we will overcome the present situation? I suppose it will stay present among us from now on.

Well, as I said, there is such an enormous generations of new data on this agent, on this disease, so I am sure that we will reach to have first a vaccine that will provide us immunity, then the virus will not circulate because of the vaccine, so then we will probably consider it like another flu, we will have some cases, but it will not be such a generalized infection as it is right now.

What advice would you address to consumers in order to protect ourselves in these times?

Following the directives from the public health authorities, I would say to stay confined, to keep some distance from each other so that we can prevent the virus transmission, hygiene is very, very important, washing hands which is very well covered in SafeConsume, trying to avoid touching surfaces that may be contaminated, we have to be careful at packages as well if they are handled by many people.

In the end…

In the end I would like to say a joke that belongs to the Nobel prize laureate Joshua Lederberg, so maybe he was serious, he said that he didn’t know which microorganism started life but he knew which will end life: it will be a virus.

I understand that viruses are everywhere but, to end into an optimistic note, I take your joke and conclude that for all of us is important to learn how to fight against the “bad-guys”.

Interview taken by Daniela Lupașcu