Nobel laureate Arieh Warshel on the push for coronavirus drugs

By Laura Fernández Palomo

Jerusalem, Apr 17 (efe-epa).- Nobel laureate in Chemistry Arieh Warshel is researching the papain enzyme in search of a drug against the coronavirus, something he believes will be vital until a vaccine is found.

The Israeli-American biochemist, who gained recognition from the Nobel committee in 2013 along with two colleagues for their work developing computational models to predict chemical processes, is using his knowledge to help unravel the new SARS-CoV-2.

QUESTION: How can your field of expertise help us learn more about the virus and what have you discovered so far?

ANSWER: We have a lot of experience in modeling enzymes like papain, this enzyme is very similar, and we look at how different possible drugs could bind to the specific protease of the corona. We try to look at inhibitors that form covalent bonds, real chemical bonds, which means it would be harder to get it away. We have a collaborator in our university who has major experience in this type of experiment.

Q: Will this process lead to the discovery of a vaccine?

The development of a drug is something we believe could be pushed faster and it is a work in progress. I believe that using drugs will be very important until the vaccine is developed. People should be pushing very hard for finding different drugs. People should try to use plasma from people who were sick.

One of the problems with a vaccine is the long time it takes to get it safe. The only thing we do on the vaccine side is more academic, we try to look at the binding of the virus, to the receptors that accept it, to see differences between the SARS virus and the coronavirus and at present we did not find major differences that one could exploit. But we’re working on it.

Q: Is it safe to lift the lockdown without drugs or a vaccine?

A: There’s the option to do it gradually, to reduce the curfew for let’s say two weeks for some of the population and to follow the increase in people who get sick and empirically to see how well it works. But clearly for older people, until you have either a drug or immunity which at present seems to take longer, I think it would be a mistake to release this restriction.

Q: Are we prepared for another pandemic like this going forward?

A: People don’t listen too much to somebody who keeps sounding the alarm that soon there will be a pandemic. It just doesn’t sound realistic.

Q: Should we be investing more in science?

A: As much as science is smart, which there is a limit to, pathogens are also very smart. So, once in a while, you have a new virus and scientists know more what to do but they are not infinitely smart. I mean, okay, I am for continuing trying to advance science but one of the problems is that the main advance in science is curiosity-driven you don’t know exactly what will lead to the knowledge that will be needed in the next time.

Q: Do you think the coronavirus will change us?

A: I don’t think that people will become better people. I mean, for a while there will be better behaviour between people. The world could change if it’s really bad and we come to a major recession. But I don’t think the world will change for the better, but I’m usually a pessimist.EFE


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