In June 2020, Dr Michael Mosley joined Science Focus Book Club on Facebook for an online Q&A about his recent book, Fast Asleep. He answered questions about sleep and health, as well as his latest book, which is all about COVID-19.
You can watch a preview of the interview below and in full on Facebook, but in the meantime, find out about how he managed to write the book so quickly, what he discovered, and why he’s optimistic about our future.
What’s your latest book about?
It’s called COVID-19: What you need to know about the Coronavirus and the race for the vaccine. I started writing it in February because it was obvious to me then that this coronavirus was going to have a worldwide impact.
It’s the fastest book I’ve ever written, I finished writing it about two weeks ago, and it’s just been published by Short Books.
The book breaks down into different sections. The first bit is: meet the serial killer. What do we know about the virus? How did it emerge? Then the next bit is the first hundred days. What happened? Where did it come from? How did it spread?
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Then there’s a big Q&A section and a section on how to bolster your immune system and keep it in good shape, and the final section is all about the vaccine. I’m feeling quite positive about the vaccine.
I’m pleased to say that, so far, nothing I’ve written is out of date. I really enjoyed writing it, and I’ve been following this whole thing with obsessive interest.
I’ve also made a couple of programmes for BBC Horizon about COVID-19 during the lockdown, so that put me in contact with lots of leading scientists. So, I hope you find it interesting.
When you say the vaccine, do you mean the Oxford vaccine candidate?
Yes. There are five leading vaccine candidates: two in America, two in China and one in the UK.
The Oxford vaccine is the leading contender, pretty much worldwide at the moment, and it’s a very novel sort of vaccine. It’s unusual because what they’ve done is they’ve taken a virus which causes the common cold, an adenovirus – it actually causes the common cold in chimpanzees – and they have genetically modified it so it expresses the spikes that you find on the surface of the COVID-19 virus.
In the early animal trials, they took monkeys and they gave them the vaccine, and then four weeks later they deliberately infected them with the virus. None of them developed pneumonia. So that’s a good sign.
I volunteered for the human trials, though originally they were looking for younger people – I’m 63, so I fall into the older category – but now they are racing ahead at an extraordinary speed. They’re talking about producing up to 10 million doses by September, assuming it works, and possibly a billion doses by January.
As I said, there are another four vaccines in stage two human trials, which is phenomenal. So, I’m feeling really optimistic about vaccine.
I also write a little bit about other vaccine research, about the history. So smallpox, for example. Edward Jenner proved the vaccine’s effectiveness by infecting a little boy, an eight-year-old, with cowpox.
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Then a month later, he tried to infect him with smallpox, which is pretty unethical but it’s what’s called a human challenge study. Then he did it with a bunch of other people, including his own eight-month-old child, he published his research and that’s what made the vaccination happen.
That’s what they may have to do with COVID-19, they may have to find human volunteers who are prepared to be vaccinated and then deliberately exposed to the virus, because that would short circuit an awful lot of issues. Issues about getting for people to be vaccinated, waiting for them to be exposed, which could take a while.
So, I know they’re actively considering that, but they are rolling out the vaccine in Brazil as well, because that’s one of the few areas in the world where the virus is still spreading at a rapid rate.
Are bacteria and viruses actually becoming stronger to try and override our immune systems?
No, what they are doing is constantly mutating in an attempt to get around our immune system. That is kind of the natural order of life. They are constantly on the go.
The problem is that we are encroaching ever more into the natural world, and that means we are ever more encountering wild animals. And these wild animals are host to a huge range of viruses, and unfortunately, when they leap [to humans], that’s when you tend to get the problems.
The virus doesn’t know how to behave – broadly speaking, it’s not in the virus’s interest to kill its host because it actually wants to go on breeding away happily.
Unfortunately, the evidence is that the rate at which viruses are jumping species into us has gone up.
In my professional lifetime, we’ve had AIDS, which came from monkeys, we’ve had Ebola, we’ve had SARS, we’ve had MERS, and now we have COVID-19. And I have no doubt there are plenty of other viruses out there just itching to jump species as well.
COVID-19: What you need to know about the Coronavirus and the race for the vaccine by Michael Mosley is out now (£6.99, Short Books).