Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Remdesivir, hysteria, and the value of basic science

RT and LM: I wrote an op-ed for (formerly Russia Today), Decadent like the late Roman Empire, the West is committing suicide through its irrational response to Covid-19. A kind native speaker who is a master of his language helped me with that tongue and compression of my talkative prose.
After several days of delays, the most closely watched Czech Covid-19 patient, a 60-year-old obese Uber driver from Prague that is considered the first "domestic infection", received his first Remdesivir dose on Tuesday. The plan is 10 infusions, one per day, each of them lasts 30 minutes. Sadly, after the first day, the hospital reports "no improvement". Update: 48 hours after the first infusion, mild improvement. I hope that they agree that as an obese man with more viruses than others combined, he naturally needs a bigger dose.

Let me translate a fun Czech article about the unexpected hotness of the basic science.

Photo from Reuters

Only "weirdos" were interested in coronaviruses. Antonín Holý is why Remdesivir landed in Czechia

Some 20 hours ago, the General Faculty Hospital in Prague began to serve Remdesivir to a patient with severe symptoms of Covid-19. It is a drug developed by a team led by Dr Tomáš Cihlář [Thomas Brickmaker] which was kindly given to Czechia by the U.S. company Gilead Sciences. Biochemist Mr Jan Konvalinka from the Czech Academy of Sciences describes why it was exactly Prague that was chosen as a recipient of the drug, despite the enormous demand for the compound.

Maybe only now, thanks to the Covid-19 disease, politicians will start to appreciate the investments into pure research as well as the contributions by Prof Antonín Holý whose workroom may be credited with unique antiviral drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B, and herpes. It means a Czech man and his colleagues who gave rise to a collaboration with the U.S. Big Pharma company Gilead Sciences. That company is currently giving us a promising drug Remdesivir which has a chance to be a cure against the coronavirus.

Maybe politicians will start to realize that science has a value. Who has heard about the coronaviruses just a few years ago? They were uninteresting viruses that were only investigated by several weirdos in the Czech Republic, weirdos who did the basic research.

And suddenly, that lame coronavirus is braking and threatening our famous economic growth, maybe by dozens of percent. And if I could continue, who would have been interested in nucleic acids, before the HIV emerged? Who cared about the research by Mr Jan Svoboda when it came to retroviruses causing tumors in chickens? Again, almost nobody because it wasn't bringing profits to the economy. How huge losses may be suffered when science is undervalued, is already clear now.

Maybe politicians will no longer have to be persuaded that science is existentially important for the society and that it deserves some support from the government. A simplified lesson says: Be nice to your virologist, he can save your life.

Is this story about a multi-year collaboration of Czechs with Gilead Sciences also telling us that the government budget's priorities should be changed? And I don't mean just the investment into science but especially the health of the people. Your Institute for Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry used to pay higher taxes than the Prague International Airport when it was collecting license fees for Antonín Holý's drugs.

In fact, it still trumps the airport. It is about $100 million a year and we are paying taxes out of it, unlike unnamed individuals or institutions. In no way it means that as scientists, we have the right to pressure politicians: give us more money and don't ask what it is good for. What should be primarily supported is good science which is picked through a highly critical judgement. And good science is also what the governments should support.

Antonín Holý and his assistant in his lab that produced the groundbreaking AIDS drugs

But politicians may want to stop determining which science is "useful". We don't really know what will be useful at some future moment. And the coronaviruses and nucleic acid analogues are only proving that we cannot really determine that. That unpredicted risks may always emerge and we should be ready for them.

Gilead Sciences, the company

The U.S. firm is focusing on antiviral drugs. The most famous product is Tamiflu used to treat flu or Viread used against HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B. The latter examples are exactly based on a patent related to compounds for treatments that the company has bought from the Czech scientist Antonín Holý and his team.

Gilead Sciences cooperates with the Czech Institute for Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry that Holý used to lead. The license fees bring the institute about 2 billion crowns a year which have resulted from the work of Holý and his team.

Poor science probably cannot be great. I remember the first meeting with Holý in his lab when I was shocked that he created some of his essential gadgets himself because he couldn't afford them or they were unavailable on the market.

These days, good science cannot work without good money. But again, I must emphasize: Scientists shouldn't be judged according to their being useful for the society because that cannot be told apart. Scientists should be judged according to the quality of the science that they are making. That's the path towards better science.

So is the testing of Remdesivir in Prague a result of a certain exclusive relationship between Gilead Sciences and the work of Holý, and/or because of Prof Tomáš Cihlář's being one of the scientists who developed Remdesivir?

I may be talking about it a lot now because I have acquired a certain position in the Czech science but the collaboration with Gilead Sciences originated and continues thanks to personalities such as Holý and Cihlář. It is thanks to these two men. And it is also a delicious story, if you will.

Maybe their work is more appreciated by the U.S. company than by Czechia?

Yes, the Gilead folks are surely appreciating that work more than the domestic politicians do. There can't be an argument about it.

It seems that it was a big mistake of advanced countries to outsource the strategic production of important drugs or protective equipment to China. Not only in this case, business probably had a higher priority than the safety of the local people. Shouldn't the production be returned to Europe and America?

I would like not to sound as a general after a battle and I would like to avoid accusations directed against anyone. The transfer to China wasn't made by any particular politician. The decision was made by all of us who prefer to buy cheaper products and to pay lower taxes. We shouldn't forget that this development of the Southeastern Asia led to an immense improvement of the living standards of one billion people or so – and that is not a bad outcome, either.

But you are right. Everything in the world has its price. I think that mankind will learn its lesson from these events.

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