Surely when Pedro Alcolea made the decision to dedicate himself to research, years ago in his native Socuéllanos, he did not imagine the tortuous path that awaited him. Graduated in Biology from Complutense and graduated in Chemistry from Uned, Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, one year at the Center for Infectious Desease Research in Seattle (USA), director of four doctoral theses, author of popular science articles. .. His resume, simply overwhelms. But something is wrong. Alcolea, committed since last March to find a vaccine against Covid and a member of one of the most promising trials taking place in Spain, led by Professor Vicente Larraga at the Higher Center for Scientific Research (CSIC), does not feel that their work is sufficiently recognized. He charges about 1,600 euros per month, which, after discounting the mortgage on the apartment in Madrid, makes him live too fair.
There are no schedules at work: many weekends, the occasional Sunday, not to mention Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.. And that Pedro and a partner are the only ones on his team with a permanent contract – he passed two competitive examinations and prepares a third -, even if it is as a technician, below his capacity, “because there are hardly any places to promote and it was this or nothing if I wanted some stability. He confesses that if they hadn’t given him that opportunity long ago he would have thrown in the towel. “But this is so beautiful and so necessary,” he slides with a sigh. A brilliant mind adapted to a complex scenario and an “essential” task that takes place in record time.
“Marketing” of places
The case of Pedro Alcolea, who crossed the 1940s frontier some time ago, is by no means unique and raises the question of whether one can really be focused on a job like this with six or nine-month work contracts; uncertainty hovering overhead like a sword of Damocles. Moreover, it portrays the general trend in a country that only invests 1.24% of GDP in science – Germany, 2.81% -, projects are scarce and the offer of places is testimonial. That is when it is not marked by nepotism. “A few days ago, the BOE published by mistake an opposition where, next to the required agenda, ‘Dani Thesis’ appeared in parentheses, the name of the person who fitted the required agenda like a glove. This marketing, says Alcolea, is the verification of what is happening and it is very serious».
Mariano Esteban leads the most advanced vaccine project, based on an attenuated variant of the smallpox virus and which has already demonstrated 100% effectiveness in animals. Its passage to clinical trials – phases I and II, with humans – is imminent and the goal is for the vials to be on the street before the end of the year. Well, his team is made up of eleven people, «All with a work contract except me; all waiting for it to be renewed so as not to go to the street ». Theirs has never been a bed of roses, but it acquired dramatic overtones from 2010, with the crisis, when they began to reduce funding. Scissors that have made 90% of the laboratories in this country cut templates – they became 20 – or lead them directly to closure.
The lack of means is endemic. Vicente Larraga, whose vaccine also protects mice 100%, “although the route of administration still needs to be improved”, trusts that the pandemic restores some sanity to a “parasitized” system. This is how Alcolea defines it while processing a sample in the culture room to evaluate the immune response induced by the vaccine, which, like those of Mariano Esteban and Luis Enjuanes, does not need to be kept at -0º.
“We have a very serious problem with science,” Larraga continues. Since 2010 we have witnessed a very direct attack, a decade that has marked a 35% decline in investment terms. It is not that there is little money to work, that too; it is that those who have retired or would have to do so, have not been replaced. Look at me: if I did not get to re-engage – in a pandemic like this one cannot choose to stay out of it – they would have closed the laboratory. And that with highly prepared people who are over 40 years old and none with a fixed position in that age range. We are talking about a whole lost generation.
With such an outlook, young people who go abroad to train lack the incentive to return. 20,000 Spaniards are investigating abroad, according to data from the Network of Associations of Spanish Scientists and Researchers Abroad (RAIDEX), whose members do not tire of demanding a State pact that allows this situation to be overcome.
A “meager” offer
“And this is so because there is nothing here,” Esteban clarifies. Look, I am the example of what we speak. I went to the United States in 1970 and came back 22 years later. Why? Because there were no obstacles until you reached your ceiling, while here they are telling you that you cannot grow, whatever you do. And that is very frustrating. People don’t want to be given anything, he says, but they do want to be able to compete in decent conditions and have some security. “The offer is meager: a place leaves and a hundred people show up, all with fantastic resumes. That demotivates anyone.
“I am amazed that there are people who want to continue working in Spain,” adds Larraga, “and that those who stay are so motivated and eager to do well. I speak of married people, with children, a veterinary doctor who had to get into technical training because there were no places for anything else. I’ll tell you more: I recommended it, because it was that or wait for the holy advent, which never comes. And this also applies to private initiative. “I had a collaborator who decided to jump into the pharmaceutical industry, because he thought he would have more scope. He was wrong. The manager of a very important multinational had the gesture of explaining it to him. ‘Look, he said, we don’t hire people in our labs to develop products, we package them. For the other, we turn to people from the CSIC or from the universities, who are cheaper for us. ‘
José María Mato, former director of the CSIC and for 15 years head of private research centers that operate under the Basque Government, said months ago from the pages of this newspaper that promising young people should be tempered abroad, “The problem is that they don’t come back”. And for that we have to be able to offer them a future, “so that in 5 or 10 years we will have a solid group of researchers. Spanish or foreigners – insists Larraga -, nothing happens. They are welcome. Something that they do very well in the United States since World War II. Did you know that they grant you residency there if you are a recognized scientist? Automatically”.
“An investment, not an expense”
“Science has always been seen in Spain more as an expense than as an investment”, acknowledges Mariano Esteban. A statement that is shared by the entire research community, which often works in precarious conditions. “I’ll tell you an anecdote,” he told this newspaper on Tuesday. A few years ago, a finance minister had the idea of telling me that we scientists were spending a lot. And that during a meal at the Royal Palace. I replied that it was not like that and gave examples of everything that science contributes to our day to day. I did not understand that the biggest investment a country can make is knowledge.
The promoter of the vaccine that seems to be closest to its distribution says that the bottom line is that “we do not believe in science as the engine of technological development. And the truth, gentlemen, is that without science we are not going anywhere. If the health crisis has shown anything, it is our vulnerabilityWe are not prepared for this pandemic or for others to come. I’ll give you an example. The first thing that Biden has done when taking office as president is to address a letter to the director of MIT to ask for advice on five unavoidable actions to return to be competitive globally in 75 years from now. That, here, where you don’t look beyond the next elections, is impossible.
Vicente Larraga could not agree more. «Money is not enough, you have to plan for the long term. And that means offering decent conditions -not precarious contracts- and provide the means so that, once they have passed a very tough selection process, they work properly, with technicians to help them and young people with intact enthusiasm. Do not give them an empty laboratory and tell them: ‘Now, find your life,’ “he cries.
«The politicians do not understand anything of what is happening. They say that you have to promote R&D because it is ugly not to. Also, they are not interested in learning. They are almost all lawyers and economists. The only one who comes close is Pedro Duque – an engineer, not a scientist, with a more practical vision of life – and he is more alone than a mushroom ».
The vaccine race already has a winner, now what?
The consequences of everything described, says Larraga, could not be more discouraging, “with politicians going to the airport to receive vaccines that others manufacture when here we are more than qualified to do them.” The professor, who claims to have “all the support of the Center for Industrial Technological Development”, has received more than 400,000 euros for his project. Said like this, one does not know if that is a lot or a little, so a clarification is necessary. They have given Oxford 200 million from the public treasury, plus what the pharmaceutical AstraZeneca has put in. “As for the templates, they are one hundred and we six.” Do the math.
Neither does public-private collaboration invite optimism. And it’s not just the companies’ fault. “When you have a clear policy and you know what you are going to do in the medium term, companies generally adapt quickly,” says Larraga. The problem is that here we are lurching, with what the companies withdraw ». In his opinion, “we should support a national industry, even if it is small”, to develop and manufacture drugs, although then it will be necessary to reach agreements with “the big ones” to distribute them. “
It is in this line that Biofabri is already working, the company of the Galician group Zendal, previously dedicated to the production of veterinary vaccines and now focused, after an ambitious reform, in manufacturing the batches of vials that both Esteban and Larraga will need for the human clinical trials. “The development of the vaccine does not require a multi-million dollar investment,” explains Juan García Arriaza. The real problem is technology transfer and before, there was no one capable of manufacturing what we were developing. Until now.
With the vaccine race over – which Pfizer and Moderna have won – we are entering the business itself, because the population will be treated for two or three years, Larraga calculates. “This, in addition to money, provides ‘know how’, very important for any company because it raises new horizons in the medium term. When you have the technology to make vials for human use, the range of possibilities that opens up is enormous.