The best vaccine against coronavirus is information, we are constantly told, but an actual vaccine would be even better. The challenge to find one falls squarely into the lap of the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry, the focus of today’s chapter in this series on Argentina’s new Cabinet. The Health Ministry might be the front line for the preventive measures constantly emanating from the high command of a hyperactive Presidency but theirs is a holding action at best – only the global scientific community represented here by this ministry has the potential to vanquish Covid-19.
The Ministry has picked up the challenge in the form of creating a Coronavirus Covid-19 Unit in mid-month with an initial allocation of 25 million pesos from ministerial funds. In tandem with the CONICET national scientific research council, this offers an umbrella to pool the knowhow, equipment and infrastructure of all the universities, laboratories, research centres, etc. into one single brainstorming. A highly necessary centralisation to absorb the avalanche of scientific information arriving daily from all corners of the globe but the unit’s immediate priority is also decentralisation – to broaden the diagnostic facilities beyond the bottleneck of the Malbrán Institute while at the same time working to improve techniques. This drive had already led at time of writing to the arrival of reagents for testing in nine hospitals, covering four provinces beyond this capital, with a dozen in line for the diagnostic kits.
A thankless task because this mushrooming of diagnostic centres will inevitably lead to a compound multiplication of confirmed cases, which will only feed the impression that the battle is being lost. Any progress is a long-term bet with the scientific community stretched to come up with even a Dunkirk for these darkest hours of death tolls mounting daily worldwide and other dire news flashes. The Imperial College of London calculates that up to 18 months will be needed before a reliable vaccine can be made available – besides searching for some wonder antiviral drug among the already known options. Closer to home and in a shorter term Science Minister Roberto Salvarezza estimates that it will take at least a couple of months to find a rapid and simple testing technique to supplement the complex PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction, an infallible but also cumbersome technology, requiring sophisticated equipment and overloading diagnostic facilities) while also developing an antibody detecting kit. Finding this test will not bring the world any closer to a vaccine, only give this country a better idea of what we are up against.
Even if Argentina has no expert in the molecular biology of coronavirus (who does?), Argentine science – with its glorious history of three Nobel Prizes – has been singled out as one of the 10 countries participating in the Solidarity global group organised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to fine-tune the most effective treatment against coronavirus, representing Latin America – apart from Canada and South Africa, all the other nations are Eurasian. Rather than see the quest for a vaccine degenerate into a kind of substitute for the Tokyo Olympics with each nation racing to be first, the WHO seeks to pool global efforts. The study is two-pronged – clinical testing of the four main medicines recommended thus far (including Donald Trump’s pet nostrum of anti-malaria chloroquine, already being tested in Posadas Hospital) and seroprevalence surveys to pinpoint incidence by age-group and other criteria so that when vaccination is finally possible, it can be deployed intelligently.
Political and economic analysts love saying that crisis and opportunity are the same word in Chinese (actually the same character rather than word) and with the coronavirus crisis opportunity now knocks for Roberto Carlos Salvarezza, 68, a biochemist with long experience in CONICET (which he headed from 2012 to 2015) and a recent interest in nanotechnology – a totally unforeseen opportunity to escape the gigantic shadow of Lino Barañao, minister during 3,921 of the 4,030 days of this portfolio’s existence so far.
“Made in Lanús” Salvarezza is not exactly a household word, even if not a few of his Cabinet colleagues have even less political background – in the 2017 midterms then senatorial candidate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner singled him out for a leading role in her Buenos Aires Province lower house list (second only to the economist Fernanda Vallejos), running for her new-fangled Unidad Ciudadana creation against the Peronist rump (whose campaign manager was Alberto Fernández) and entering the Cabinet from Congress last December. As for his scientific career (heavily tinged with technology), the curricula vitae of scientists tend to be solid but dull and Salvarezza is no exception with more than 300 publications in over three decades. The Science, Technology and Productive Innovation Ministry was created on the very first day of the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presidency in 2007 and in the ensuing eight years of that controversial regime it is extremely difficult to find any initiative of hers which commanded applause or at least approval across so wide a spectrum. Barañao did much to earn that respect. Unlike many academics he had a keen organisational mind, streamlining often diffuse programmes of grants, scholarships and subsidies.
The “Science, Technology and Productive Innovation” tag of his ministry was no accident since he worked hard at twinning research and industry. National ministerial rank offered him outreach to the world which he eagerly pursued – invariably liked and admired by foreign ambassadors, who often considered him their main point of contact with an isolationist administration.
When Argentina changed government in 2015, he was the only minister whose continuity was requested by the new President Mauricio Macri – he then had to endure painful cuts (20 percent in funding, 60 percent in CONICET intake) while his ministry was downgraded to secretarial status in the last 15 months of the Macri presidency, but he found the Cambiemos leader’s drive to intensify contacts with the outside world a saving grace. Yet Barañao was basically indifferent to politics, dedicated only to science.
For most of Argentine history science was regarded as the province of its highly autonomous universities. The first big innovation was the foundation of CONICET by Nobel Prize winner Bernardo Houssay in 1958 as the governing body for scientific research. A science department directly within government (the Education Ministry) started under Carlos Menem in 1996 and Eduardo Duhalde thought the area important enough to expand the ministry’s name to Education, Science and Technology in 2002. Which takes us through to the creation of today’s ministry in 2007.
So much for the bureaucratic history but then nobody would say that the best vaccine against coronavirus is bureaucracy – to repeat the obvious, the best vaccine would be a vaccine.