Luis Enjuanes: Over 35 years studying coronaviruses

At 78, Enjuanes is head of the research group on Coronaviruses at the CNB-CSIC, where he has been researching for 37 years. This past February, the renowned virologist visited the Universitat de València in order to participate as a speaker at the 2nd Congress of Virology of the UV, where he highlighted the problematic of Long-COVID.

Q- Could you explain to us the current state of research regarding Coronaviruses and, in particular, vaccines?

A- In our laboratory we have a variety of orientations. One line of work is the study of the relation between the virus with the cell, especially the innate immune response, which acts in 3 hours, making it extremely important. And, on the other hand, we have the development of vaccines based on RNA Replicons, new-gen vaccines. We have checked that we have one for the MERS from the Middle East, as well as one for the SARS Coronavirus 2, which work well, but having a fantastic vaccine in terms of protection is not enough anymore. You now need a vaccine that is also competitive performance-wise, which is what we are currently trying to improve. Besides, when you want to apply a vaccine to humans, it has to be compliant with some security guidelines. In the laboratory, in order to produce the vaccine, we have used a promoter which works very well, thus why we used it. However, since it has a viral origin, the agencies that regulate the administration of medicines don’t want you to use it. just in case. So we are changing that promoter, improving performances... basically already doing the vaccine’s scale up.

Q- Regarding Long-COVID, with what hypothesis are you working in order to look for treatments or alleviate the symptoms?

A- That is honestly a very important topic. I, and everyone who works on the field, give it extreme importance. Statistics are terrible. In the United States, 20% of those who had COVID with an elevated pathology haven’t got rid of the virus. They thought they were better, that they were fine, but it’s been proven that they can have a combination of 200 different pathologies. To the point that the 3% of that 20% can no longer work due to being incapacitated, since they have symptoms such as problems with blood clots that cause them pain on one leg, or a variety of pathologies at the same time, they have brain fog that doesn’t let them think properly. What I mean is that the reason it is terrible is because of the elevated number of people whom are left incapable of working a normal job.
Publications with concrete solutions are now beginning to appear. These people need aid because their body wasn’t able of getting rid of the virus by itself and, nowadays, these aids do exist. Combining antivirals, injecting monoclonal antibodies that get rid of the virus, or with a variety of very interesting observations already developed, the problems of people who couldn’t turn the corner because they still had the virus in them are starting to get solved, since they can now reject it with medical aid.

Q- Your contribution to the development of vaccines against the coronavirus has been very important, how have vaccines developed? I mean, is it necessary to take yearly vaccines in order to guarantee immunity to new strains?

A- Correct, I’ve been taking the vaccine against the flu virus for the last 17 years for two reasons. First, because each year a new strain may arrive, since these viruses come with migratory birds from the northern hemisphere and each year a different virus may come and one needs to update their vaccination. But there’s also another very important matter. Oversimplifying, there’s two types of vaccines. 60 years ago, I was given a single shot for each of the following viruses: polio, measles and smallpox. And here I am 60 years later, with a single shot I am protected against these three pathologies. However, this doesn’t happen in the organism when the infection happens at the mucous membranes. What are mucous membranes? How are they different from the rest of the body? Mucous membranes are those zones of the body that are open to the outside, such as the eyes, the mouth, the lungs, the digestive tract... These zones, even if you induce a good immunity, it will be short-lived. Therefore, you get vaccinated and, before a year has passed, you need to get a second shot because it doesn’t last, because the immunity on the zones open to the outside is throwing out a large number of cells and antibodies, and they run out fast. That’s why it’s so important to get vaccinated yearly against the flu virus, because each year it’s a different strain, but also because the immunity we have on our respiratory tracts diminishes after a year.

Q- It seems that there’s still people who are reluctant about the vaccines against COVID-19, how would you highlight the crucial role of vaccination as a tool to protect the population from the coronavirus and its strains?

A- Yes, I am well aware of that. I am getting vaccinated every year, I have already received five vaccinations, more that one per year. People need to get vaccinated because, if they don’t, it poses a great risk to themselves, their partners, their children and their surroundings. Therefore, the best thing to do is to reinforce vaccination as has been made up until now with respiratory viruses, such as the flu or, for example, the respiratory virus Sincitial, which is also very important at all stages of life. It’s important for children, for adults and for the elderly.

Q- Misinformation regarding vaccines against COVID-19 has been an important challenge in the fight against the pandemic. How do you think we could effectively counter this misinformation and foster a more precise comprehension of the importance and safeness of vaccines between the population?

A- The number one priority is, indeed, the formation of the people, and, since it’s a difficult topic for some, the best course of action is to disseminate knowledge. Let experts in a variety of areas give talks and explain why vaccination is good, for them to be protected, and so that they don’t catch one of those long-term illnesses, for example. Some media don’t get this. Sure, we can’t force anyone to be vaccinated, but what we can do is to try explaining to them in the best way possible that, if they catch a disease and have a severe pathology, they could end up with a disease for life.

Q- Talking about formation, we are precisely on a congress organised by students of the Master’s Degree in Virology. Did you have any doubts when you were approached and asked to participate as a speaker?

A- My career has been dedicated to coronaviruses for 35 years. For some reason, I saw something in them when no-one even knew what a coronavirus was. And I chose them for my studies. Three years ago, I was about to retire, but it would have saddened me not to take advantage of the potential we had at that time in the laboratory -with highly qualified postdocs and predocs- to develop a vaccine, since we have long been developing vaccines, not with the current intensity, neither of the type we are doing now, which are based on RNA replicons... and so here I am, working.

Q- How do you think this congress can contribute to the professional future of the students present?

A- It’s very important for the students here, so that they can face an audience, to learn how to summarise. And this is terrific training. No matter if they stay in research or not, because if they go and work with pharmaceuticals, they will be asked to be good communicators and speakers. It’s an excellent formation for everyone.

Q- One of only two master’s degrees on virology available in Spain is offered at the Universitat de València, do you think this specialisation is relevant and promising in the current context and future of science and public health?

A- There are tons of specialisations, and all’of them are interesting. The specialisation in virology is certainly one of them. Virus-related infections will not stop happening, every year a new coronavirus emerges or is discovered. This means that this will never end. Also, it’s not only about coronaviruses, there are many types of viruses and people needed to study and release vaccines for them.

Q- Lastly, what is your vision for the future on the fight against coronavirus and other viral diseases?

A- Well, that is not a complicated matter. I’m not a seer, so i can’t tell the future, but I can see the past, and, as I’ve said, every year a new coronavirus appears and affects either animals or people, causing a severe pathology. And, who does it aim for? The larger settlements, people and animals that are important for food, such as pigs, birds... So it is important to stay alert and keep an eye on all parts of the world, especially on those that have less research and disease detection services, in order to have specialists and so that we can identify what pathogen is active at any given time. But also, you can always improvise on past vaccines for a concrete pathogen, updating them for a new strain, in a short amount of time, for example, if it’s about vaccines obtained form recombinant DNA, through genetic engineering, in two months you can update from an old to a new serotype.