June 05th 2020

COVID-19. The global challenge.

Josef Penninger, Director of the Life Science Institute (LSI) at the University of British Columbia (UBC), discusses in an online live talk with MCI students and readers of the Tiroler Tageszeitung.

MCI Livetalk mit Josef Penninger playvideo

MCI Livetalk mit Josef Penninger

The Austrian Josef Penninger is one of the world's most famous geneticists. As head of the Life Science Institute (LSI) at the University of British Columbia (USB), he heads Canada's largest life science institute with 1000 employees and 90 research groups. Together with his team, he has an active substance that gives great hope for the treatment of COVID-19. In the MCI live talk with students and readers of the Tyrolean newspaper “Tiroler Tageszeitung”, he discussed the current corona crisis, how his drug could help and how far it has already progressed in the approval process. "I love viruses, they are my world," he said when talking about his work, but also that some of the viruses are very dangerous and that everybody has to protect themselves. That is why he is definitely in favor of getting a vaccination against COVID-19 as soon as a safe vaccine is available.

The SARS-CoV2 virus primarily causes severe lung disease, but other organ systems are also affected. The enzyme ACE2, which is not only present in the lungs but also in the heart, kidneys and intestines, protects against inflammation. The virus attaches itself to ACE2, switches off its protective function and starts its replication. Via the bloodstream, it enters the entire body and triggers a wide range of symptoms. During the SARS epidemic in 2002/2003, Penninger and his colleagues had already researched the SARS-CoV1 virus, which is very similar to the new virus and uses the same receptors in the human body. Already then, he developed a substance that stops the virus. The drug had already undergone phase 1 testing 10 years ago. The phase 2 tests are now underway, and it looks very good, the scientist says. "The enzyme ACE 2, which we developed into the drug, has two roles: It prevents the virus from entering the cells, and it has a protective effect on the lung tissue, thus attenuating the infection and protecting the lungs from fatal failure."

Josef Penninger strongly rejects conspiracy theories around COVID-19. There is no evidence that the virus was artificially created in the laboratory. But that the COVID-19 disease originated in Northern Italy should have been clear to every expert. The reason for this is the close connection of the northern Italian textile industry with China: "Everyone knows that epidemics come from China via northern Italy to Europe and via Toronto to North America.

Josef Penninger supports the quick and massive lockdown, which the Austrian government had initiated. In view of the information available and the lack of experience with the virus, this was the right measure to take. He finds the comparison of COVID-19 with the flu inappropriate and unfair. On the one hand, the COVID-19-triggering virus is much more infectious than influenza viruses, and on the other hand there is an effective vaccination against influenza, which is used far too little.

Josef Penninger is encouraged by the fact that research is progressing in giant steps and that people are learning to adapt their behavior to the threat: "When the virus comes next time, we will be prepared. Something like the last few weeks will not happen again."