Cinema, science, technology, health … there is no area in which Hispanics do not stand out for their work, dedication and commitment, even when it comes to combating a pandemic such as the coronavirus that, more than a year after its beginning, has changed the course of the planet in all its latitudes. Perhaps in this vein the names that have resonated the most come from developed countries, but in Latin America there are worthy representatives who from their trenches have created solutions against COVID-19.
In Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15) we want to highlight the most influential Latinas and Latinos in film, science, technology, health and the fight against the pandemic.
Perhaps materials science has little to do with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the infectious disease COVID-19, but for Mónica Olvera de la Cruz, a physicist specializing in this matter, that was not an impediment. A graduate of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), a doctorate from the University of Cambridge, a professor at Northwestern University and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, Olvera de la Cruz and her team discovered in August 2020 the point weak in the spike protein of the new coronavirus.
When studying how the virus interacted with the human body, the experts realized that the spike or S protein of SARS-CoV-2 is responsible for latching onto the cell that infects the body. Thus, their work was based on blocking the cleavage point to decrease the ability of the virus to multiply in humans by up to 30 percent.
A few days had passed in 2020 when the Colombian virologist Javier Jaimes noticed something unusual in his inbox: “I started receiving emails from my boss, from my colleagues in the laboratory, in which there was talk of a new virus. We began to cross information, to make genetic guidelines ”, he told the BBC in an interview published in March last year.
A researcher at Cornell University, his work was essential when nothing was known about the new virus found in Wuhan, China, as he and his team focused on understanding how something so tiny was beginning to spread around the world and make thousands of people sick.
One of his first hypotheses regarding the transmissibility of the virus was that SARS-CoV-2, compared to other coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV —which appeared in China in 2003— and MERS —which spread in the Middle East in 2012— , had acquired “a very specific characteristic in one of its proteins that makes it leave the cell ready to infect.”
In 2018, the Venezuelan virologist Irene Bosch founded together with other scientists the startup E25Bio, which is dedicated to conducting rapid tests for infectious diseases. Thus, in 2020 this group developed the Dart Direct Antigen Rapid Test to locate SARS-Cov-2 as fast as “a pregnancy test”.
Using the SARS virus as a starting point, the team discovered that there were very effective reagents for the new coronavirus, so they set about finding the two best-working antibodies to do a test. By having them, they created a nitrocellulose device where they placed gold particles that, when in contact with a person’s nasopharyngeal secretion, would anchor to the antibodies and generate a reaction in case of detecting the virus proteins: if a red line appeared, the result was positive and took approximately 15 minutes. “A rapid diagnosis is essential to control a pandemic,” says Bosch.
An academic at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and director of the Millennium Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy, the name of Alexis Kalergis began to circulate more frequently in Chilean newspapers in mid-2020, the reason? The promise of a vaccine against SARS-Cov-2.
Leader of a group of biological sciences researchers and supported by the Covid-19 UC Social Board – an institution made up of authorities, academics and health professionals to face the pandemic – Kalergis, creator of the first immunotherapy in the world against the virus syncytial, have worked since January 2020 on a vaccine against COVID-19.
Unlike CoronaVac, which began to be applied in Chile before any other Latin American country, Kalergis explained that its vaccine “is completely different. We work based on a formulation that is designed to be used from birth “.
ARVAC Cecilia Grierson is the name of the first Argentine vaccine against COVID-19 that is already in the preclinical phase and that honors the first doctor from that South American country. This has been developed by the Institute of Biotechnological Research of the National University of San Martín under the leadership of Juliana Cassataro, a doctor specialized in immunology, infectious diseases and vaccine development.
The ARVAC Cecilia Grierson de Cassataro and her interdisciplinary team are based on recombinant proteins, a technology similar to that used in the hepatitis B or HPV vaccine. Although the project emerged in mid-2020 with the aim of creating more tools to combat the health crisis, it is waiting for the necessary funding to continue testing this vaccine.
Recognized in 2020 as one of the 10 most outstanding scientists of the year by the magazine Nature —the only one in Latin America—, the Uruguayan virologist Gonzalo Moratorio played a decisive role in his country before the arrival of SARS-COV-2 by developing diagnostic tests that helped contain the pandemic.
Moratorio, head of the Laboratory for Experimental Evolution of Viruses at the Institut Pasteur de Montevideo and professor of virology at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of the Republic, helped deploy tests based on standard PCR or polymerase chain reaction technology in a network of public diagnostic laboratories, which helped that, by the end of 2020, in Uruguay there were barely 181 deaths from COVID-19.
From four peptides (protein fragments), which once synthesized were shown to have an efficacy of over 90 percent against the replication of SARS-CoV-2, the Mexican scientist Paola Castillo develops a biopharmaceutical to combat the disease that adds more 4.6 million deaths in the world.
An expert in virology and immunology, Castillo designed the peptides using bioinformatic tools; targeting the S protein of SARS-CoV-2 prevents the anchoring changes necessary for the virus to enter cells, while the molecule focused on the cellular receptor blocks the binding between it and the viral protein. The other two peptides bind to prevent the coronavirus M and E (envelope) proteins from binding with other targets on human cells. Paola Castillo foresees that by 2022 a clinical stage will begin to evaluate her biopharmaceutical with patients.
The Mexican Sandra Rodil heads the team of scientists from the Materials Research Institute of the UNAM behind SakCu, a mask that inactivates SARS-CoV-2 thanks to its silver and copper components.
SakCu has two layers of cotton, one external and one internal, as well as an intermediate layer formed by nanolayers of this duo of biocidal metals deposited in polypropylene, a thermoplastic polymer. In collaboration with the Hospital Juárez de México, Rodil and company detected that, according to the viral load, if it was high, the virus disappeared by more than 80 percent in about eight hours, but if it was low, after two hours it was not it detected the RNA of the virus. Furthermore, SakCu has no cytotoxic effect or risk, and withstands 10 washes without degrading its silver and copper nanolayers.