Covid-19 hasn’t been good for cancer research as all the focus was on the pandemic. Despite important learnings from Covid-19 on immunotherapy, cancer care and research into the disease have taken a hit in the past three years, he said.
“In the beginning, specifically when the doctors were not around or when people were at home and didn’t want to go to hospitals with Covid-19 patients, cancer research proceeded slowly,” he said. “Cancer labs were closed for months. It slowed many things. Experiments had to be restarted. So Covid-19 has not been good for cancer research even though there have been important learnings about how the immune system works.”
Varmus, 83, has made pioneering contributions to understanding of cancer as a genetic disease. He won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1989 for his discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes.
Paediatric Vaccination Important: Varmus
Varmus, who also co-headed the World Health Organization (WHO) science council, emphasised the importance of genetics in cancer diagnosis, adding that India’s capacity for genomics is higher than others. Genomics is the study of all of a person’s genes, including interactions of those genes with each other and with the person’s environment.
Varmus is in India at the invitation of the Indian Academy of Sciences and will be visiting Pune, Odisha and Bangalore to deliver lectures. He was at the Ashoka University recently to deliver lectures on the politics of science and half a century of cancer research.
He’s currently the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and a senior associate at the New York Genome Center.
“Genomics is critical to following the rise of variants, how to distinguish one strain from the other, to even recognise that the change has occurred, to determine the genealogy, the spread of the virus,” he said. “India is better positioned today to build its genome capacities and even help out countries like Cambodia that have to depend on countries like China or Thailand.”
To tackle Covid-19, it is not enough now for countries to know about the transmissibility of a particular variant alone.
“Every time the virus goes through a life cycle, it is going to generate variants but the question is are these variants able to dominate the population of viruses that are infecting people and are they virulent,” he said. “There are new strains all the time and they differ with respect to their transmissibility. Now we have to think not just about the transmissibility but transmissibility in the face of the immunity that has been created by previous infections and by immunisations.”
The focus should be on how badly people will be affected.
“If you are able to protect people from getting very sick, hospitalised or dying, that makes a huge difference. Protecting against infection is more difficult and it is less important,” he added.
There is uncertainty about the future of the virus.
“All we can do right now is ensure that people have good levels of both cell and antibody production to protect themselves against the strains we know about and hopefully provide protection against the strains we don’t know about,” he said. “And if strains arise that are not responsive to the immune protection we have, then we may want to move swiftly to make a vaccine… You can change the vaccine at a molecular level very quickly within a few weeks – you have to produce it, test it. A new virus can do a lot of damage within a few months if we don’t have anything to fight against it.”
The world has seen virulent viruses before but Covid-19 was different. Now there are tools that make more expansive surveillance possible, he said. Nasal vaccines have the advantage of thermal stability.
“One thing people forget is that to keep the mRNA vaccine safe, you need low temperatures and setting up the cold chains is a major logistics matter,” he said, referring to new kinds of vaccines made by companies such as Pfizer and Moderna that were used in the US and elsewhere against Covid.
Varmus urged countries not to take the safety of children lightly.
“It turns out that children do pretty well, but the death of even one child is terrible. Countries should be urged to adopt paediatric vaccination as much as possible. Obviously, we cannot use a vaccine that has not been tested. But I don’t see a reason why India cannot test vaccines for children,” he said. “People have to step back from the assertion that some people don’t feel well for a day and recognise that mRNA and protein vaccines are lifesaving.”