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Isabel Gordo

«I don’t have the slightest doubt that science will beat the virus»

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She began studying Physics, but decided to pursue a PhD in Evolutionary Biology. In 1997, Isabel Gordo came to the Gulbenkian Institute of Science (IGC) as a PhD student, studying under top professors, such as her PhD advisor Brian Charlesworth. She spent time in Edinburgh, then at Oxford University. She returned to Portugal and the IGC. She currently leads the Evolutionary Biology laboratory and her team has managed to sequence 24 genomes of the new coronavirus; a precious piece of information that will help to understand its unpredictable mutations.

What projects did you have to put on pause in order to study the new coronavirus?
We had to reroute our two main research projects: the study of the evolution dynamics in the intestinal microbiome; and the development of new ways to eliminate bacteria resistant to antibiotics. In about a month we have studied all that we thought necessary for our expertise to fight COVID-19 and this dangerous SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. In early April we began to analyse the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and to design a plan in collaboration with IGC’s virologists and immunologists to start two new projects. 

You have sequenced three genomes of the new virus. What does this accomplishment enable?
We have already sequenced 24 genomes in all. The sequenced genomes belong to the clusters currently identified all around the world. Sequencing provides two types of information critical in the fight against COVID-19: on possible transmission chains, which allows us to track the chain of the spread of the virus; and on changes in important regions of the virus to its interaction with our cells. In practical terms, this information allows us to assess how the virus is genetically changing as it spreads throughout the population and geographically. This information is crucial for defining strategies to contain it and for future treatments for the disease it causes.

What is different about the SARS-Cov-2 genomes compared to other coronaviruses?
They have the code for a gene, that of the crown of the virus, which differs from the others in that they have a series of letters (nucleotides) in that code that make this virus have a greater affinity with an important receptor in some of our cells. It is important to note that this is the third time that a coronavirus has caused significant alarm, and this SARS-CoV-2 is a more infectious and more silent virus. Many people can be infected without showing any symptoms and can transmit it in a way that isn’t obvious. That is why we have to test the population intensively and analyse all the genomes we can of the viruses. I am convinced that we will win the battle this way: the virus grows, mutates, transmits, but doesn’t think; on the other hand, we know how to count how many viruses there are, how they mutate and prevent their transmission in real time.   

«This is the third time that a coronavirus has caused us significant alarm, and this SARS-CoV-2 is a more infectious and more silent virus»

What scientific and technological knowledge do you have that is useful in this research?
This is a new virus and at the Gulbenkian Institute of Science we have redirected all our scientific knowledge and the technological platforms at our disposal to get to know and overcome it. We have instigated new research lines: one aims to understand how human beings react to this virus (in some people it is more critical and in others it is not), what genetic factors are at the basis of this difference. On the other hand, other researchers want to deepen the biology of the virus at a more basic level, using cells it infects in order to understand how our organism can tolerate this virus.

With a scientific community from all over the world studying this virus, do you believe the vaccine will be a reality soon?
I don’t have the slightest doubt that science will beat the virus quickly and that a vaccine will be developed in record time. All researchers are focused on this pressing need and the IGC’s researchers are no exception; on the contrary, they have mobilised quickly to find solutions and be part of the response to the pandemic.

«Os investigadores do IGC mobilizaram-se rapidamente para encontrar soluções e fazerem parte da resposta à pandemia»

What lessons should scientists learn from this ordeal?
That they have to be available to contribute to a strong defence system at various levels, including what ensures our protection for the most obvious enemies: such as viruses that naturally coexist with wild animals. I also think that the role of science in informing the class of people who govern us will strengthen. Scientists are discoverers, not politicians, but their discoveries must be explained humbly by them and always be heard so that society benefits from the best possible decisions. 

T. Maria Amélia Pires
P. Rights Reserved