Margarita del Val: “The pandemic has changed science itself”


During the pandemic, Margarita del Val, researcher at the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center (CMB, CSIC-UAM), became one of the leading experts in Spain. His work in transferring scientific knowledge to society earned him the Scientific Communication Award from the CSIC and the BBVA Foundation and the Medal of Honor for Social Values from the Menéndez Pelayo International University. Virologist and immunologist, her scientific work has focused on studying the immune response to viral infections and she now coordinates the CSIC's Global Health Interdisciplinary Thematic Platform (PTI), which emerged precisely with COVID-19.


This morning, Margarita del Val visited the Institute of Natural Resources and Agrobiology of Salamanca (IRNASA-CSIC) and held a meeting with students from the IES Venancio Blanco, coinciding with the events of 11-F, International Day of Women and Girls in Science. In an interview with DiCYT, he reflects on the lessons of the pandemic and the future of research.

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Margarita del Val, at the IRNASA-CSIC

ASK. After being one of the most common voices in the media during the pandemic, how do you value that experience?


ANSWER. It was something that arose spontaneously. I saw that something tremendous was coming our way and that I had more capacity than other people to understand and learn what was being discovered, because it was the field in which I had worked all my life. Contributing to explaining it was important. I tried to understand the progress and reflect on it, because there were rushed jobs that did not have adequate quality; Furthermore, I had to identify the key questions; and debug all that to see how to transmit it in a way that everyone would understand. It wasn't that I looked smart, as we scientists sometimes try to make out, showing how brilliant we are; On the contrary, I wanted everyone to understand me and for each person the explanations could be different.

The media and scientists have learned together during the pandemic, there has been mutual respect and that has been very important. It was evident that it was something that scientists were interested in and that they respected. That has been very good, it has conveyed confidence and has shown the role of scientists as independent people, who are based on international science and evidence, although it is changing. I would like more science to remain from all of this in the media, but there is already something left and, of course, I have identified fantastic journalists in all the media.


Q. Has the pandemic changed science itself?

R. Yes, but it has had its bad part. Having access to non-peer reviewed work was essential during the pandemic, we needed to know things and we couldn't wait eight months or eight days. However, many of us turned to doing things that we did not do before and we had to separate the wheat from the chaff a lot. When it came to evaluating, I could only really do it in my field, in viruses and immune response.

There was a lot of collaboration, observations and half-baked experiments, hypotheses and speculations were shared. That was very important, but I'm old school and a tweet wasn't worth it, I needed a thread at least, with several figures and comments. I had a very big responsibility, I couldn't trust anything, so I tried to find out the flaws and be rigorous to see what I considered valid before communicating it. I spoke with many scientists.


Q. Has this health crisis served to promote any specific field of research, such as the development of vaccines?

R. More vaccines are coming out. Before, there was a lot of knowledge in the field of research, but they did not come to the market because they are not as attractive a medicine as a chronic disease. Furthermore, in Europe, there has been a great push to understand cellular immunity, there are more funds to study the complexity of the immune response than vaccines, because before only antibodies were analyzed, which is the easiest to assess.

Q. And are we better prepared?

R. There has been progress so that the same thing does not happen to us again, in preparation for the next epidemic, at the level of international, national, regional and local organizations. That has changed. Knowing scientists is important, because there are things that are not feasible for a public health agency, but scientists do them every day. We have complementary knowledge to the doctor. Science is very broad and we need all fields. In fact, during the pandemic, people who had never worked with viruses and vaccines were the ones asking the hardest and most interesting questions.


Q. Precisely, the CSIC Global Health Platform was born in the pandemic. What is it and what is it for?

R. The CSIC is an organization that covers all disciplines of knowledge and, in a very high proportion, they decided to contribute what they could to confront the pandemic based on their previous experience. It was spontaneous, there was generosity and daring on the part of everyone, seniors and young people, including those with the most precarious salary. It's wonderful to collaborate with people outside your niche. You compete with those in your niche and you collaborate with those outside. It has been very useful and continues to be interesting.

With the help of donations from large private Spanish companies, we select projects that are very immediate, easy to carry out, necessary, scientifically relevant, creative and unique. After the first few months, we realized there were more threats and moved on to other diseases, such as West Nile virus and monkeypox. Now we are watching for bird flu. The idea is to stop transmission and address the problem from all areas. We have a very good structure that includes the society area. The field of social impact, which has not been taken into account in other initiatives of this type, has guided us a lot.

Q. This center, IRNASA-CSIC, is dedicated to research in agriculture, livestock and the environment; but also participates in the platform. This is a good example of the 'One Health' concept.

R. Yes, we are in contact with wild and domestic animals, more than we think, and at some point they can scare us in the form of an epidemic. Everything is related, even antibiotic resistance is linked between humans, animals and plants. Even in crops, resistance to antibiotics is detected. The problem of the pandemic was not only the collapse of hospitals, it has been social, and preparing for new pandemics is a challenge in the human, animal and environmental aspects.


Q. We are celebrating 9/11, but precisely in areas such as health and biology, women are better represented than in other fields of science. Still, is there much left to do?


R. Yes, there remains to be done. I think it is important that they have seen more of us scientists and, in fact, it is one of the things that I thought, that apart from knowing about viruses, it is good that society sees the face of a female scientist so that families Trust that you can be scientific without being too strange, that you can be useful to society. That is vital, that they do not question you if you want to dedicate yourself to science. It is important that there is visibility, because we all have to be there. Furthermore, we must highlight the field of computer science, because artificial intelligence already permeates even art and, if we leave girls out of these careers, we have lost half of society.

Octavio Alonso