Virologist Luis Perez Villarreal is an original and provocative thinker, particularly when it comes to viruses and public concern. But he is much more than a theoretical scientist. He has invested years in hands-on virus research, working first with John Holland—one of the principal scientists to experimentally evaluate viral quasispecies—and then with Nobel laureate Paul Berg at Stanford University, before establishing the University of California-Irvine’s Center for Virus Research. Villarreal is currently Professor Emeritus of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at UC-Irvine.
He has also developed many science education programs for minority students and been honored by the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science as Distinguished Scientist. Villarreal has co-organized major international virology conferences to highlight the research of other leading virologists, as well.
I recently telephoned Luis Villarreal to find out if he had confidence in the Covid-19 vaccines currently being rolled out, and whether they were developed according to neo-Darwinian logic—since the scientific edge has now shifted to post-Darwinian logic.
I also asked him how he was dealing with pandemic restrictions. Villarreal says he’s given up Flamenco dancing but hikes a lot these days out West and advises that even on the trail somehow people seem to be smiling through their masks while social distancing. Our interview follows:
Suzan Mazur: You are a critic of neo-Darwinian science. You told me in a previous interview that with respect to RNA, which operates as a collective—a consortium—that such “an individual entity has multiple activities” and said further:
“[Y]ou now have to start thinking in terms of how the population works and not just by these linear nodes that represent the end reactions. Because they have a conditionality associated with them.”
Are the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines being developed according to neo-Darwinian logic? And if so, how much confidence do you have in a successful vaccine?
Luis Villarreal: All of these RNA viruses exist as quasispecies, which is a population of variants that hover around the average. The sequence of a viral glycoprotein generally represents the consensus of the sequence that’s generated.
Now, according to neo-Darwinian thinking, the average is “the master fittest type.”
But if you examine the way quasispecies behave, the average is more like “your average Joe”—the most common version, the most ubiquitous version, and a relatively stable composition. So, if you make a vaccine against the average, you cover quite a bit of territory. And as a rule, the vaccines made against RNA glycoproteins have been relatively stable for decades. They work.
Like the vaccine against measles is still the vaccine against measles. The vaccine against rabies is still the vaccine against rabies.
So, I don’t really see this as a fundamental flaw, i.e., the fact that RNA exists as a quasispecies, is plastic, and continually creates variants. You can still hit the average with a vaccine. There are some exceptions, but these are curious and specific and don’t apply to the context of a coronavirus—which is a very large, +RNA.
Suzan Mazur: Thank you. Can one vaccine protect humans from contracting the myriad coronaviruses we see originating in the animal kingdom? It’s been widely reported that hundreds of people in Europe have now contracted coronavirus from minks and so there’s been a mass culling at fur farms. Then there’s SADS-CoV, of bat origin, on the rise in China causing acute dysentery. Coronavirus infects cats and dogs as well. Pets have reportedly died from Covid-19.
And since humans live within the virosphere and viruses keep coming at us, is there a tipping point to our vaccine tolerance?
Luis Villarreal: I don’t really see that as a worrisome issue because people educate their immune systems. We are exposed early on and throughout life to a large array of agents in habitats, including those in the microbiomes that exist commensurately in the human gut, and so forth.
But one of the reasons certain vaccines have not been successful in the past—for example, a vaccine to prevent the common cold, which is predominantly due to the rhinovirus (rhinovirus resembles polio virus but is distinct in several ways)—is that there are basically too many types of cold viruses to make a vaccine by traditional methods. You could get a cold virus every year for a hundred years and there will still be a couple of cold viruses kicking around that you haven’t yet encountered. As a consequence, people kind of gave up on the idea of making a cold vaccine.
But with the new mRNA technology, which expands the rapidity and diversity of engaging infectious agents, you could make a hundred different mRNAs. Put that into a cocktail and, in theory, immunize and bring an end to the common cold.
I don’t really see a tipping point in terms of human exposure to the virosphere—which is massive, and it’s been that way since bacteria came into existence. The capacity of the human immune system to generate diversity is massive. I don’t think we even approach a tipping point in our tolerance for vaccines.
Suzan Mazur: How do you view the Covid-19 political jockeying and its profiteers? For example, Robert Kennedy, Jr. has been exposing the conflicting interests of National Institutes of Health/NIAID director Anthony Fauci. Would you comment?
Luis Villarreal: There is a fundamental problem with people seeking to massively profit from these public health endeavors. It creates a situation that is counterproductive to the rapid exploration and implementation of vaccines that aren’t making money.
We could have had a SARS vaccine some years ago, but there was no market for it. So it was killed off. Right now it looks as if that vaccine would have at least partially protected us against Covid-19.
The coronaviruses we find in most bats—there are only five clads—could have been sequenced years ago. We could have put a little variation in there and come up with maybe 20 different vaccines representing the consensus of those clads. Then put those into Phase I clinical trials. We could have taken the research to that point, which isn’t that expensive to do. But nobody would pay for it at the time, neither Big Pharma nor the public. And our capitalist model depends on Big Pharma, which looks to make big bucks. So the SARS vaccine didn’t happen.
It is urgent that we address this problem at a society level. Perhaps create a department for the defense of society. Something equivalent to the Department of Defense—an entity that actually defends society, that anticipates these kinds of infectious events and that doesn’t exist simply for the purpose of profit. Covid-19 was completely anticipatable.
Suzan Mazur: Don’t we already have a Homeland Security Department?
Luis Villarreal: The Homeland Security Department doesn’t do jack as far as I can tell. I don’t know what the Homeland Security Department does except intimidate protestors. . .
Suzan Mazur: Are you disturbed by the way Didier Raoult was roughed up by the scientific establishment and corporate media over his hydroxychloroquine/azithromycin approach to dealing with Covid-19?
Luis Villarreal: To some degree, because I know him personally. I know what his motivation was in bringing his clinical observations to the attention of everybody. It was basically that he had done a preliminary trial and he wanted to put it out there for others to evaluate and explore in more depth. Which is what happened. But it was sold as a cure. People got hold of it and turned it into a lot of things it wasn’t. Then he was vilified for having put something out there seen as not ready for prime time.
In terms of emerging science, any clue to be explored needs to be explored by the community. For the most part, Raoult has really contributed to the field, and I do think he was shafted a bit. Again, I know what he was trying to do and I don’t know how else he would have done it. He wanted to raise a flag and say: “Look, there might be something here that needs to be evaluated quickly.”
Suzan Mazur: Who should be distributing the Covid-19 vaccine(s)?
Luis Villarreal: It has to be a government agency. If we had a more effective Center for Disease Control, we could have counted on CDC. But CDC has been hollowed out. I don’t know how functional it is anymore.
NIH (National Institues of Health) should never have been the agency for this type of thing. NIH is more a research agency.
In terms of a functional agency providing for public health—at least initially—CDC should have been connected to the departments of health in all the various states and cities, etc. After that, commercial outfits that can distribute the vaccine on a bigger scale need to be involved—CVS and pharmacies like that.
Suzan Mazur: Do you have a final point?
Luis Villarreal: As a scientist who has spent his career invested, interested, pursuing, worrying, and trying to do something about the emergence of infectious disease and society’s response—setting up the UC-Irvine virus center to further address these problems—it is clear to me that the mechanisms (Big Pharma, academia, technology) we have in place to confront such health crises are just not sufficiently anticipatory, coordinated and dedicated.
We could have done a much better job managing the emergence of Covid-19, we could do a much better job right now. We knew the very likely outcome.
But if you made a living as a scientist trying to do something about it: Say you invested yourself in SARS research—during that first outbreak—you would have gone broke and out of business. Had to find something else to do. Which is exactly what happened to the scientists who were dedicated to SARS research.
We can’t count on this kind of piecemeal approach. We need something equivalent to a Department of Defense that doesn’t take its eye off the ball and has the resources.
Suzan Mazur: Have scientists been outspoken enough?
Luis Villarreal: Scientists in academia have been outspoken about the virus and relatively uniform in their response to the government’s approach to Covid-19. But nobody has listened to them. And those in a position to be listened to have been politically silenced to a large degree, like the Surgeon General and head of CDC. . . . The success of science at all levels of exploration requires the participation of people who are not only imaginative but unencumbered as well.