Dr. Aristides Patrinos | Expert in synthetic biology, and a former leader of the Human Genome Project President of Synthetic Genomics
We can emerge from this crisis with the realization that as humans we have more that unite us then divide us
It is satisfying and even thrilling to experience the maturation of medical science in its embrace of sister scientific disciplines and especially high performance scientific computing. This has been a long time coming and in several ways was triggered by the Human Genome Project (HGP) and by advances is structural biology research.
Συνέντευξη: Κοσμάς Ζακυνθινός
Mr Patrinos, we are almost completing the first year of the global coronavirus pandemic that caused severe global unrest. Although we are close to vaccines availability against Covid-19, some scientists say that we still have a long way to go for prevention and treatment. What is your assessment?
I agree that this will be a long haul. Vaccines may become widely available during the first few months of 2021, but it will be a while before we have vaccinated enough people to make a real difference. Moreover, we must contend with the antivaxxers whose numbers have grown recently, a part of the anti-science movement that is really tragic. One concern is also how long lasting the effect of the vaccines will be. The result may be recurring waves of the epidemic over the next few years. At the same time, however, we are advancing on the treatments of COVID-19 that raise the survival rate of these patients.
Do you believe that a second pandemic phase with vaccines available as well as significant natural “herd immunity” is going to last possibly two more years? Maybe from 2022 until 2024?
I am skeptical of the “herd immunity” theory, partly because of the reasons I gave to the previous answer, i.e. the antivaxxers and the time effectiveness of the vaccines. It is important to accept that we will have to continue some of the common sense approaches of using masks and practicing social distancing. I realize that people are yearning for the return to our prior lives, but we must accept reality. Technologies such as mass media, automation, internet, remote sensing, artificial intelligence, etc., are making the approaches more manageable and therefore I hope we will maintain the discipline and the drive to stay the course until we can defeat this scourge.
For the first time in history, a global research, evaluation and distribution mechanism delivered a new and safe drug at an incredible short time. As a member of the Advisory Board of the ORNL Computing and Computational Sciences Directorate, could you please explain how the “Summit” Supercomputer contributed to the specific research process? It is satisfying and even thrilling to experience the maturation of medical science in its embrace of sister scientific disciplines and especially high performance scientific computing. This has been a long time coming and in several ways was triggered by the Human Genome Project (HGP) and by advances is structural biology research. For the HGP the application of “shotgun sequencing” was only made possible through the use of high performance computing and for structural biology the data from protein crystallography combined with computational biology to provide insights into the three dimensional structure and function of proteins. More recently, advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning powered by high performance computing are opening new vistas of medical applications such as additional and disparate uses of existing drugs and insights into the genetic predisposition of patients to therapeutic modalities. The ORNL supercomputer is one of the first “exaflop” systems that accomplish ten to the eighteenth floating operations per second. One can imagine many new advances as that speed further increases and more advanced algorithms are developed in the next few years.
In your opinion why we were so unprepared for this pandemic, although we have succeeded significant progress in science and technology?
I regret to say that it is a human trait to often dismiss hypothetical future dangers in favor of dealing with the here and now. Our relatively recent experiences with SARS and Ebola were harbingers of what was to come. This was partly based on the continuing encroachment of human populations on virgin forests and their significant interactions with wild animals (including consumption) for the first time and to a significant degree. It is a fact that our unfettered development is committing crimes against nature and nature is fighting back! It is also a fact that at least for the United States the Obama Administration had anticipated the serious possibility of another pandemic and had convened a team in the White House to prepare for such an event. I served the Obama Administration in 2016 and was aware of the team’s work and helped in the review of some of its documents. The team produced an elaborate plan that would cover all aspects of an emergency response by the government, including the rapid mobilization of medical resources and the implementation of control systems to contain the pandemic. The incoming Trump Administration disbanded the team and canceled the plans with the argument that in the event of a pandemic they could quickly reconstitute them. Unfortunately, this is not what happened, so we were woefully unprepared to deal with this pandemic in the U.S.
Do you think it’s time to establish a global early warning system that could easily detect any early signs of an epidemic situation? Could we say the World Health Organization (WHO) should have already started utilizing relative tools?
I have respect for the World Health Organization (WHO) and I agree that it needs to have a serious role in serving as an early detector of pandemic signals. I also endorse its role as a coordinator of the individual national efforts to optimize the collective response to a pandemic. However, we need to recognize the diversity and varied character of individual countries and to admit that “one size doesn’t fit all” in terms of dealing with the pandemic. Moreover, it is important that in the event of a pandemic we need to explore multiple approaches to its containment and defeat. Despite the apparent chaotic responses to COVID-19 across the globe, the multiple and maybe even sometimes redundant response strategies enriched the portfolio of successful therapeutic modalities and may have also delivered a suite of effective vaccines that may prove to be the ultimate and ideal mechanism to control COVID-19.
After the first pandemic wave earlier this year people turned to be less social distancing and governments gradually withdrew traffic restrictions resulting failure to gain time against the Corona Virus and putting public health into danger effecting now several countries that are in a second lockdown. In the same time the issue of virus mutations returns to the forefront. In your opinion how possible danger is a “catastrophic” mutation soon?
When all is said and done, and we have managed to overcome this pandemic it will be time to take stock of what has transpired. We can then identify and debate the proper actions we took, consider things that we could have done better, and analyze the mistakes we made. This “postmortem” can also serve to better improve our ability to predict future pandemics and to be better prepared for when they strike again. Because one thing is for certain, they will strike again! Regarding possible catastrophic mutations developing during the various waves of the pandemic I am somewhat sanguine about them. By now the virus is probably one of the most studied pieces of RNA ever and by a significant set of top notch scientists around the world who will be able to very quickly identify ways to overcome such a problem.
Apart from the direct consequences of Covid-19, are there any indirect? Should dialogue be opened about the loneliness, the economic crisis, social isolation and all the possible effect will have on societies and individuals?
When a crisis hits, such as a pandemic, it highlights the weakest parts of society’s responses to it. Such has been the case with COVID-19. While we can certainly dwell on all the circumstances that could have been considerably improved with more humane attitudes and fairer treatments let us also pause to recognize the incredible performance and sacrifice of the health workers across the world that rose to the challenge and continue to deliver lifesaving services. My hope is that we can emerge from this crisis with the realization that as humans we have more that unite us then divide us. Perhaps we can also better reconcile our relationship with nature and strive for a much better environmental consciousness.
Even today, there are still voices about another “flu”, although scientifically proven not true. What do you say to the pandemic deniers?
I generally respect voices that challenge conventional wisdom. I seek to understand their points of view and engage them in a constructive dialog. I confess that I have grown impatient with the voices that belittle the seriousness of the pandemic. They are mostly driven by extreme elements that are taking advantage of the interconnectedness of our world to spread divisive and unscientific messages. I will continue to try to understand their motives and pursue as much common ground as I can. In the meantime, I encourage them to visit their local hospitals and if they get a chance to peek into the intensive care units where the unfortunate victims of the pandemic are being intubated. Perhaps they may sober up and give up on their demented beliefs.
Do you think that the complexity of the 50 states US governance system with different crisis management rules, contributed negatively to the spread of the new Corona Virus?
It is true that our federated system of fifty individual states can be both a source of enhanced strength as well as of occasional confusion. This is another case of “one size not fitting all.” As long as all states adhere to the prominent set of correct principles there should not be a problem with various variations of the central theme. In fact, a sensible diversity of approaches taken by individual states could inform each other and provide a more robust toolbox to contain and defeat the pandemic. What needs be stressed, however, is that the federal government has an important role to play as well. It needs to provide constructive coordination and provide appropriate backup in cases where the individual states fall short of dealing with the pandemic for various reasons such as being overwhelmed by the number of infections or experiencing shortages of lifesaving medications.
What is your prediction about the situation in America for the upcoming months? Has the pandemic reached its highest point?
Currently we are experiencing a very unfortunate surge of the pandemic and we worry that the onset of winter, the seasonal flu, and the holidays (I am writing this on Thanksgiving Day, a day when large families gather to celebrate) will exacerbate the situation. However, we are also hopeful that the good news about developing vaccines and improving therapeutics will combine to enable us to turn things around. I also trust that the incoming Biden Administration will avoid mixed messages and trust in the scientists, for example Dr. Anthony Fauci, more than the outgoing Administration. I predict that by the spring of 2021 we will all be in a much better condition.
You are a pioneer in the field of Synthetic Biology, member of the research team who succeeded to decode the human genome in 2001. In which field the world scientific community focuses the research? What is the next big challenge for humanity?
Clearly, advances in genomics, for example synthetic biology and genome editing such as the CRISPR Cas9 method (for which this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded) are accelerating the pace of advances in medicine. There is hope that with these new weapons we can tackle some of the worst scourges of human disease, including some of the worst cancers. Miracles will not happen overnight, but we expect to see steady progress with occasional breakthrough in the battle against disease. My own work and commitment are now more focused on using those weapons for environmental challenges, including that of global climate change. Unfortunately, despite concerted efforts we have not been able to significantly reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. If current trends continue, we will be dealing with a hostile world with serious ecological disruptions. During the last few years some of us have been exploring how we can use the advanced biotechnological tools to modify plants and soil microorganisms to absorb and store more carbon dioxide than they currently do. If we are successful and can perform these adjustments safely and on reasonably large scales, we can stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and avoid catastrophic climate change. This may well be the existential challenge of our times!
Η συνέντευξη πραγματοποιήθηκε στις 12/12/2020 | The doctor #40