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Coronavirus | Peter Ratcliffe, Nobel Prize in Medicine 2019: “I have no sympathy for the people who continue to hide the facts”

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Peter Ratcliffe at the Nobel Prize ceremony on December 10, 2019.

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Peter Ratcliffe at the Nobel Prize ceremony on December 10, 2019.

Although it’s only been seven months since the winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine were announced, for one of them it feels like “a distant memory.”

“It was a roller coaster ride,” says British scientist Sir Peter Ratcliffe, who, along with Americans William Kaelin and Gregg Semenza, won recognition for his discoveries about “how cells feel available oxygen and adapt to the”.

The announcement of October 7 was followed by various tributes and distinctions. And is that the importance of their research is immense, among several reasons, because they are helping the development of new treatments for anemia and cancer.

But the joy of the award was short-lived: in a matter of months, the world entered a war against a coronavirus that has left tens of thousands dead and infected in different countries.

“As everyone, I’m sad because of what is happening, somehow I feel frustration, but above all concern, “he says.

“There are people who warned, for quite some time, that this could happen.”

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The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm presented the award to Ratcliffe, Gregg Semenza (left) and William Kaelin “for their discoveries about how cells feel and how they adapt to available oxygen.”

Remember other epidemics, but reflect on the devastating impact that the covid-19 pandemic is having in some places.

“It is difficult to know what to say or what are the correct observations. The truth is that we, at the moment, don’t really know where this will end. ”

The problem of the first evaluations

When I ask him if, in general, we could have been better prepared to face this pandemic, he says “sure”.

But he understands that there have been people who did not correctly assess the potential severity of the epidemic.

“I think the first data seemed to indicate that China had been able to control the epidemic pretty well, all the details of that are yet to emerge, “says the also director of the Target Discovery Institute at the University of Oxford.

“It has been shown that (the coronavirus) has been much more serious in Europe and the United States than could have been predicted,” despite the fact that “a good number of experts had warned of possible problems.”

Ratcliffe is also the director of Clinical Research at the prestigious Francis Crick Institute (in England), which has joined the fight against the coronavirus from the area of ​​diagnosis and research.

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JONAS EKSTROMER / AFP via Getty Images

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Ratcliffe has dedicated his life to understanding the response (at the molecular level) of our body to low levels of oxygen. That process is known as hypoxia.

Reflecting on his country, he points out that “the first problem is that we were not as prepared as we could have been,” says the doctor.

He acknowledges that it was easy to make mistakes when analyzing the coronavirus situation in January and February.

“Most of us misjudge the threat (…) But there’s no point blaming anyone. You just have to go on and do the best you can, “he says.

“My problem really is that it seems (the wrong evaluations) are still happening. We have not yet discussed everything that needs to be done.

“In this country, we are still moving very slowly towards a situation where we are trying to control a developing epidemic. We are waiting for the best to happen, hoping that the epidemic may somehow fade away, “he adds.

But most of the evidence that exists, not all, suggests that this is unlikely to happen, says the expert.


The researcher assures that he has “strongly argued to the representatives of the UK government that what the country needs is a systematic testing program for the coronavirus and for antibodies and other types of immunities. ”

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Ratcliffe has been emphatic about the need for systematic tests in his country to detect which people, with or without symptoms, have SARS-CoV-2.

Although he admits that it is not “a trivial thing” to organize, he is frustrated that it is not done.

You are concerned that there are “delays in obtaining diagnostic tests” in your country, as well as delays in implementing a systematic approach so that, as far as possible, people who are infected can be separated from the rest of the population.

And it is that there are many infected with SARS Cov-2 who are asymptomatic.

“Other scientists and I are a little frustrated because we still don’t think this problem is being valued properly as we move forward.”

He points out that the fact that “mistakes may have been made in the past, which is easily excusable”, does not mean that measures and policies cannot be changed in the future.

“These people are chosen for their ability to speak in public and handle very difficult questions, but they are very distracted by those questions and it seems that they are not very good at making decisions.”

“We undoubtedly need measures to control the epidemic in the future, “he says.

“What concerns me a little is the inability of our leadership to show clarity about the unknowns that exist and, sometimes, what needs to be done.”

“The truth and nothing but the truth”

Ratcliffe argues that one of the lessons this crisis is leaving is that the public understands when something is not known.

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The Francis Crick Institute, of which Ratcliffe is director of Clinical Research, in London, is considered the largest biomedical research center in Europe and one of the best in the world.

“And so, it is better to be honest about what is ignored and not giving statement after statement: ‘the virus is doing this’, ‘so many tests would not be necessary’ or that (the situation) will end in May or June ’”.

“People agree that these claims (and predictions) are baseless and useless. People will understand that we are going through a time of uncertainty and that, although we have a number of hopeful choices, it is difficult to determine what will happen to them.”

For the specialist, one of the key aspects of this pandemic is “the importance of telling the truth” “

“It will become evident who has told the truth and who has not as inquiries arise. “

The expert is sympathetic to “the people who didn’t make the preparations as quickly as they should. Many of us could have made that mistake.”

But he adds: “I have no sympathy for the people who follow hiding the facts

“I think the public can cope with bad news and a level of uncertainty.”

And he clarifies that he is not necessarily talking about a particular country.

“I think there are different types of problems in many countries right now, in the way leadership has responded, in statements about the data related to the epidemic. “

“I think if there was a lesson it would be tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. “

“I am in England,” he tells me. “And that is extremely important and any deviation from that principle carries great penalties.”

“A little stronger”

Ratcliffe has an impressive academic career that he has built, in part, at two of the best universities in the world: Cambridge (as a student) and Oxford (as a student, researcher and professor).

And in so many years dedicated to science, he never imagined what is happening in the world.

He admits that, like many people, he was uncomfortable with the complacency of the world against some growth and interaction trends between distant parts of the planet.

To put it in perspective, he tells me that after the Nobel announcement, he received 300 invitations to lecture in different countries.

And reflect on what is right in relation to the climate and the use of fossil fuels.

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According to the Oxford University researcher, travel was one of the factors that most influenced the rapid spread of the coronavirus around the world.

“In a way the world had gone crazy. We could emerge from this epidemic a little bit stronger, a little bit more clearly about what are the priorities we want for the world and about some of the crazy things we could stop doing. “

“The idea that we could continue traveling, using more and more energy regardless of the stability of the world,” is something that needs to be rethought. “There has to be some kind of change.”

The scientist does not believe that this particular pandemic is a direct consequence of the destruction of forests or of activities that are probably causing climate change.

“I do believe that the number of people on the planet, the close conditions We are living in and the freedom to travel around the world have been responsible for the high rate of spread (of the coronavirus). Travel is directly responsible for (the virus) going so fast, “he says.

“It is not something immediate”

Faced with the anxiety that the coronavirus has generated in many people, the researcher believes that people understand the truth when told clearly and carefully.

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Knowing the coronavirus genome and knowing how to detect it lights the way to develop effective drugs against the disease.

“It is true that we are in a much better position against this virus than we were in 1918,” he says.

And it begins to list everything that has been achieved since the coronavirus outbreak began to be studied: the RNA sequence of the virus is available, it is known how to detect it (which allows the disease to be accurately diagnosed), they can measure antibodies, it is possible to develop therapies “and perhaps also a vaccine.”

“We know what components of the virus could be the drug target. We have a number of drugs to test. “

For these reasons, he indicates, “prospects are better.

But it is important to note that it has been a great challenge to quickly organize the scientific response to the pandemic.

“In fact, I think most people understand that it is not something immediate,” that it takes time.

Looking to the future

Something positive, reflects the academic, is that from now on people will know cHow important it is to react quickly to the threat of another epidemic, not only with regard to case detection but also case segregation.

“For example, Hong Kong has had an extremely impressive response, and that is partly because they have already had experience with SARS.”

The scientist tells me that don’t feel entirely pessimistic.

Right now, he explains, the range of possibilities ranges from the pandemic fading away without causing further damage, to a catastrophic prospect that could increase its ability to infect and hit heavily populated developing countries.

And he repeats: “To be honest, I really don’t know how this will end.”

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