BILL GELBART, LOS ANGELES: DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR OF CHEMISTRY & BIOCHEMISTRY WHO WORKS ON COVID-19 VACCINE
How did you come to work on a COVID-19 vaccine?
The lab I lead with my collaborator, Charles Knobler, is well suited for such a project because the cancer treatment we have been pursuing uses virus-like particles to deliver therapeutic genes to targeted cells in the body. When the COVID-19 outbreak began to get out of control just a month or two ago I realized that my lab has the tools to understand and work with how the novel coronavirus involved (SARS-CoV-2) interacts with the human immune system, so I applied for a grant to start working on a vaccine.
Doesn’t it usually take many months to have such a grant approved?
Yes, but this is a singular situation, so the process was fast-tracked. I had expected to have to wait the usual many months before learning whether my proposal would be funded or not, but in this case, I heard back just two days later from the UCLA AIDS Institute, which had asked for COVID-19 pilot projects, telling me to get started right away and try our idea.
Are you communicating with other labs that are working on a COVID-19 vaccine? What is the earliest you think a vaccine might be approved for widespread use?
Yes, within just a few weeks’ time we have begun collaborations with two other labs and have been exchanging ideas and reagents with several other principal investigators throughout the country. These are exceptional times, and it is reassuring – and promising – that fellow scientists appear to understand how imperative it is that we join forces rather than compete. Nevertheless, we have to be realistic and expect that it will be many months – and more likely even years – before effective and safe vaccines can be approved and be available for widespread use.
What would you say to people who think COVID-19 is not much worse than the flu, and that the measures we are taking to protect people aren’t worth it?
The flu is a bigger problem than most people realize. But COVID-19 is proving itself to be much more deadly than the flu. It is already killing so many people in such a short time that some hospitals have no more room or resources for patients who desperately need help. Although most people who catch COVID-19 survive it and many cases are actually quite mild, many adults of all ages who survive it are getting much, much sicker than they would from a flu virus, and it can take weeks or months to recover. If we make the mistake of letting this virus run its course – without keeping people apart from each other and take serious precautions, and without developing a vaccine – it will kill millions of people very quickly, and make even more people unable to work for weeks or months at a time.
Have you heard of the idea that the coronavirus vaccine will have a microchip added to each dose in order to track the person receiving it?
No, I have not, but it certainly sounds like any other conspiracy theory that people come up with when they are scared. I can understand why someone would feel that way since the world is different now and governments are suddenly affecting their citizens’ lives much more directly than before. I can also understand why people are confused by how quickly the available scientific information is changing because this virus jumped from animals to humans such a short time ago and is so unlike any other, we know. Doctors and scientists are struggling to catch up, despite the fact that huge numbers of them have focused their efforts on this disease. That is why COVID-19 is so dangerous! But no, coming back to your question: it would not be possible to implant a person with a microchip to a vaccine. Once we have a vaccine that is safe and effective, it will be our best hope for returning to normal without losing many more healthcare workers, teachers, parents, and people from all walks of life to this insidious disease.
Is there anything else you think would be helpful for our readers to know?
It is very hard to find accurate information about a pandemic on YouTube or social media. If you have questions, go to the website of a hospital or university. And remember that wearing a mask and being careful about social distancing is a lot easier and pleasant than literally being unable to breathe because of COVID-19!
For more information on Bill Gelbart’s lab, go to https://virus.chem.ucla.edu/