Lessons from the past: What we’ve learned from the history of pandemics

Berenice González Durand
Lessons from the past: What we’ve learned from the history of pandemics
This photo taken on April 9, 2020 shows a COVID-19 coronavirus antibody test kit - Photo: Greg Baker/AFP

Lessons from the past: What we’ve learned from the history of pandemics

Berenice González Durand
Mexico City
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Experience from pandemics such as the H1N1 in 2009 can help us defeat new viruses

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The Spring of 2009 shares an important characteristic with that of 2020. The H1N1 pandemic had put the population under lockdown because of the strong virus that attacked 90% of those who passed away without them even noticing the existence of the new enemy. The sad breaking news took over Mexico, the country that was the center of the pandemic. Confusion classified H1N1 as seasonal flu or pneumonia. It became real when people began dying and fear expressed in people’s confinement, masks, and gloves. Now, those scenes are similar in the case of SARS-CoV-2, however, the current story has proven to be longer and deadlier with a global impact.

A new battle
11 years ago, it was clear that physical distancing was necessary, but did we learn anything else, perhaps in the science research field, that could be useful against COVID-19? Has something improved in the matter of the fight against a new virus? For Dr. Carlos Arias, from the Department of Development Genetics and Cell Physiology of the Biotechnology Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), one of the main differences between the H1N1 times and now is how the scientific community interacts more with health institutions, mainly in having access to biological material.

“In the previous pandemic, it was more difficult to interact with the Institute for Epidemiological Diagnosis and Reference (INDRE). This time, the Health Ministry organized a workgroup as a response to the disease that involved, since the beginning, academics that have been close to the diagnosis process with the INDRE,” says Arias, but clarifies that although that part has been improved nowadays, the contributions made by scientists in our country 10 years ago are not that different from the current ones.

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The main research areas directly related to the incidence of the disease in a short and medium term in this kind of situation are the diagnosis methods, the development of antivirals, and the design of vaccines. Arias mentions that during the H1N1 pandemic, the efforts were focused on that direction but were based on a poorly developed basis in technological terms, not because of a lack of capacity but due to the lack of endorsement and development of platforms that could quickly provide solutions in those areas.

“Perhaps the only case worthy of mention is the development made by Dr. Laura Palomares from the Biotechnology Institute, who partook in the creation of the first recombinant vaccine against influenza.”

It should be noted that Dr. Palomares is a pioneer in Mexico in the development of processes for the production of recombinant proteins as well as in the production and characterization of recombinant glycoproteins. Her experience has taken her to endorse technological platforms that could be used for the creation of a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, but there would still be many pieces missing from the puzzle to join the arena of the best developments in the world.

The importance of generating, and maintaining, technological platforms with the experience from the previous pandemic have been understood for years in many other countries at the top of the development of vaccines, such as the case of the American company Moderna, that receives support from the state’s health institutions, as well as the vaccine developed by scientists from the Jenner Institute of the University of Oxford.

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The main advantage of the last project is that previous studies show that similar inoculations cause no harm to humans. This institute uses technology focused on altering the genetic code of a previously known virus so that, once injected in the organism, the impostor virus makes the immune system fight the true murderer. This feat combines the effort of working in that technology for 20 years and 70 clinical trials that included a possible vaccine for MERS and others for ebola and malaria.

The first phase for a clinical trial with 100,000 people began a couple of weeks ago. The lesson is that technological platforms that have worked for many years and that are maintained bring results in the long term, something that has not happened in Mexico.

Arias says that, unfortunately, it is not only a matter of having the platforms needed at a scientific level but to have the required involvement with the industry. Moreover, this kind of emergency promotes nationalisms that prevent an equal division of the product. “If we don’t have economic or political influence, we are the last ones on the line; that is why it’s important to develop technology to be able to respond, perhaps not as fast as in other places, but fast enough to have some impact according to the different problems that could take place in the future.”

Nanotechnology, new doors
The biotechnology expert thinks that if we had developed fast and cheap diagnosis methods 10 years ago, we would have also found new ways to identify a virus. This is one of the problems that seem less important than the vaccine but that have made the whole world struggle.

In front of this issue, the European Project CoNVat, led by the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2), is trying to design a new diagnosis system for COVID-19 with new projects. Through a platform of biosensors based on optic nanotechnology, they want to provide a fast diagnosis without the need for complex instruments.

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Nanotechnology tries to open new doors to fight against the new pandemic. In Mexico, a multidisciplinary team of scientists from the Center of Nanosciences and Micro and Nanotechnology (CNMN-IPN) is working in the creation of an electronic device that uses nanomaterials to detect the H1N1 virus so as to offer a new alternative for quick detection. The coordinator of the interdisciplinary group of researchers, Jorge Roberto Vargas García, explains that the design of this device could also be applied to develop a diagnosis method for the new coronavirus.

The basic principle of the device uses the interaction between new materials that are being developed and the surface of the virus. “The nature of a virus depends on the nature of the proteins that comprise its surface. For H1N1, we developed materials that interact with those proteins. Now, we would have to find the interaction of those materials with the  protein surface of the new coronavirus.”

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The project officially began in January 2019, however, the specific proposal for the detection of H1N1 is linked to years of work of many experts.

Vargas explains that talking about nanomaterials is talking about a field that has grown in the last decades since, when materials are synthesized in very small dimensions, it causes significant changes in the physical and chemical properties of the material that can be used in different areas that have had a great impact on communications and medicine. They cause different effects at a quantum level, such as those caused by the interaction of light with these materials.

These interactions help visualize answers in many components, such as detecting the virus in the early stages. The researcher says that exploring this kind of material could also have a significant role for direct treatments but it would imply to support these technologies and maintain projects in the long term that could be useful to fight future pandemics.

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