Author: Mónica G. Salomone
José María Ordovás (Zaragoza, 1956) chairs the group of 16 Scientific advisers to the Ministry of Science and Innovation for COVID – 19 . The arrival of the coronavirus to Spain from the United States followed, where it resides, “with a feeling of helplessness,” as when “you see two cars on a collision course and you know they are going to hit it, but you can't help it,” he says. A pioneer in the study of the relationship between diet, genes and health, Ordovás is director of the Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory at Tufts University, in Boston, and Senior Researcher at IMDEA Food, in Madrid.
With the de-escalation, there is a message that you want to mark in a match: “We cannot let our guard down.” In this interview, he remembers the importance of a good diet to face COVID – 19; talks about the role of science in decision making; and draws attention to the challenge of producing a vaccine for everyone, when it is discovered.
With the 'de-escalation' there is a certain feeling that this has been a bad dream that has already ended. What do you think?
The message is clear and global: this has not and will not end in the near future. Our lives will continue to depend on COVID – 19, waiting for research to find the barrier against the virus, that is, the vaccine. And it won't happen tomorrow. Every day there is talk of the “imminence” of the vaccine, but it is not only discovering it. We have to make it!
“Our lives will continue depending on COVID – 19 waiting for the investigation finds the vaccine, and it will not happen tomorrow ”
In what sense will manufacturing the vaccine be a problem?
With each new pandemic the vaccine production capacity has been well below the needs. This has been a challenge for WHO for decades. Even in the US, manufacturing capacity is well below internal needs. With the COVID – 19 it is not only necessary to discover the vaccine, but also to create new facilities to produce it. And there is the added concern of geographic and social inequalities.
Sounds very pessimistic.
It is not pessimistic, it is realistic. Not only is the bad dream not over, but we can find ourselves facing the perfect storm, especially for elderly people who have been confined, with a weakened immune system, perhaps due to nutritional deficiencies —common in this segment of the population— , psychologically affected by loneliness or fear.
Is there no possibility that the epidemic will subside in summer?
We don't know if summer will bring a break. It is a new virus, we do not know its habits. The evidence suggests that we are not going to get rid of it completely, so we have to add to the scenario the high temperatures and the need for air conditioning, which right now is talking about limiting. In 2003 there was a brutal heat wave, with an excess mortality of 6. 600 deaths in less than two months. Since then heat wave mortality has declined, but largely from air conditioning. Now the blows can come from everywhere. So the message is: Don't let your guard down and anticipate them! For that we have science.
Is the air conditioning serious?
It is being studied to what extent it could contribute to the spread of the virus, but we are not yet in a position to make recommendations.
“Not only is the bad dream not over, but we can find ourselves facing the perfect storm, especially for the elderly who have been confined, with a weakened immune system”
Your area of study -nutrition- is not one of those that has been most related to COVID – 19. How do you coordinate the group of scientific advisers?
I am a member of the Scientific Technical Committee of the State Research Agency. Seeing what was happening, the Committee communicated in a letter to Minister Pedro Duque our concern as scientists and our availability to contribute to the best possible way out of this situation, taking steps based on science. We received a positive response immediately and were tasked with suggesting a multidisciplinary committee of experts. So we did it. We saw that nutrition was a crucial aspect, as well as the emphasis on older people. As a researcher in nutrition and health, especially aging, I was proposed as a member of this new group.
What is the relationship between nutrition and COVID – 19?
It is very, very important, as Napoleon said: “Armies walk on stomachs”. This is even truer when it comes to the immune system – how it works depends on nutrition. If it is good, it works effectively; Yes No No. Attention: it is not that a good diet is going to prevent the contagion, but if we are infected, the battle that we are going to mount to the virus will be more effective. It is also important for comorbidities that affect the course of the disease: obesity, diabetes, and inflammation.
You have said before that the nutrition of the elderly is not usually optimal.
The nutrition of the elderly is often deficient in various nutrients, so this is another urgent point in these months: this situation must be repaired as much as possible so that in the following waves the virus meets immune systems more powerful and fighters.
It also investigates the genetic predisposition to suffer from COVID – 19 in a more or less serious way. Are there any results already?
There are promising results, but very preliminary. For now we must consider that we are all exposed, we must all take precautions and receive appropriate medical care, regardless of our genetics
“A good diet will not prevent infection, but if we catch it, the battle we are going to mount against the virus will be more effective”
Returning to your role in the group of experts, is it better observed from outside Spain what is happening here?
It is important to clarify that I am not disconnected from Spain. I have collaborated closely for decades with research groups and Spanish institutions, often making weekly trips, and I have a research group at IMDEA Food, in Madrid. The ability to observe the situation from above, like a satellite, perhaps gives me that vision that is needed to coordinate an excellent group of colleagues.
In the group there are people from very different areas. How is the work going?
Fantastic. I hope it serves as a lesson for the future. This pandemic must be combated with a global scientific strategy, in addition to epidemiologists and virologists. The same goes for other diseases. Obesity, for example, which has now been seen to also be a risk to COVID – 19, is a pandemic that over time We have to eradicate, and we will only do so with the integrated effort of basic and applied researchers, sociologists, economists, experts in big data, artificial intelligence, experts in public health, psychologists, ecologists, etc.
Questions have been asked from the ministry. Which? Do you already have answers?
We have been asked a dozen questions; I'd rather not go into more detail. Yes, although we have been working for a short time we have some answers, based on the best scientific knowledge. They are not always solutions, but at least we give directions about where you should not go in decision making. And by the way, even though we are working in a totally altruistic way, we are the target of those who, instead of solutions, are looking for culprits. But that is not going to divert us from our path.
“It is being studied whether air conditioning could contribute to the spread of the virus”
Have you felt attacked?
Shortly after being named, we were attributed decisions with which we had nothing to do. It is the fruit of ignorance. Our responses have been criticized before any were given.
You are not the experts that advise on de-escalation.
Not in the measures that have been taken so far.
But they are related to the other advisory committees.
Not for now, our group is recently formed and we work day and night to answer the most immediate issues. But our purpose is to establish such contact as soon as possible. All committees must be under the same pressure, and they are excellent professionals; In those questions that we have in common we should present a consensus. Union is strength, if we coordinate we are more likely to successfully fulfill the mission for which we have been constituted, from different ministries.
Are the reports that you prepare public?
Not for now, but the idea is to make them public in the very near future.
What weight do they have in the decisions made by the Government?
We still cannot assess its impact. So far we know that our information has been passed on to recipients without modification, a sign that our opinion is highly regarded.
“Scientists are a group to be imitated by politicians to leave partisanship aside when it is necessary to react to extreme situations”
What did you think, being in the United States, when the epidemic reached Spain?
Both me and my son, José Manuel Ordovás-Montanés, who investigates the basic mechanisms of COVID, have been asked a lot – 19. I don't know how to describe it, maybe it's like when you're driving and you see two cars on collision course; You know they are going to stick it and you can't help it. It is a feeling of helplessness, of thinking, how is it possible? What are they thinking about? It is stupor, sorrow, surprise at the lack of adequate reaction. The popular proverb says it: when your neighbor's beard – in this case Italy – you see peel, put yours to soak. In the case of Spain it has been peeled dry and very painful.
How have you lived with Trump's statements in the pandemic, for example the bleach?
No comment. There you do feel like you are in the middle of that bad dream that we mentioned: No, it can't be! There is no way this is really happening! Not the most absurd of Pedro Almodovar's tragicomedies would have recreated the situations that have occurred. There is no rational explanation.
The information provided by the WHO has sometimes been criticized or used to justify a late reaction. What is your vision?
My vision is summed up in one sentence: in times of crisis, the intelligent seek solutions and the useless culprits.
What research result has surprised you the most in this pandemic?
More than results, I was surprised by the ability of scientists to unite against the common enemy. There are exceptions, unfortunately, but in general generosity and openness have prevailed to move forward. In this sense, scientists are a group to be imitated by politicians to leave partisanship aside when it is necessary to react to extreme situations.
“In times of crisis, the intelligent seek solutions and the useless culprits”
What is the most important thing that, in your opinion, the non-expert public should know about this pandemic?
That scientists exist to find solutions to humanity's problems and to improve our lives. Also, that each one of us contributes to the solution and the problem. The response of the Spanish has been exemplary during the confinement, but it is extremely easy to retrace the path we have walked and once again fall into the catastrophic situation in which we have been plunged.
It means that more waves will come, but we can make them less harsh.
Exactly, the intensity will depend on the behavior of society, of each one of us.
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