'The virus will become less aggressive; it doesn't need to be lethal to survive'

Rodríguez Bejarano.
Rodríguez Bejarano. / SUR
  • Genetics professor Eduardo Rodríguez Bejarano believes Covid-19 will lose strength "because it depends on its host" and says much more testing is needed

The easing of lockdown has begun and the scientific community is holding its breath. Although thousands of pages have already been written about its origin and fast development, the way this virus behaves is shrouded in unknowns. That is why genetics professor Eduardo Rodríguez Bejarano, who heads the Genetics department at Malaga university, says it is "too easy" to come to erroneous conclusions. Not that his scepticism stops him being optimistic: "There will come a time when it is controlled. Every pandemic in history has disappeared in the end. What we are trying to do now is reduce the amount of damage it causes as much as possible," he says.

Aware that "society needs to return to some type of normality," he points out that pressure on the hospitals may have eased recently, but we still don't know how far the contagion has spread. "Until there is an efficient vaccine for everybody, it would be advisable to know the exact epidemiological situation, to prevent new waves and to ensure that we can control them."

The World Health Organization (WHO) has for months been showing the way to identifying the real impact of the illness and dealing with the way it spreads: "Test, test, test."

Rodríguez Bejarano agrees that Spain needs "an extensive network of diagnoses to monitor the population" and says the system should consist of more than one test. "We need to test the greatest possible number of people at regular intervals so we can isolate those who are positive and prevent the transmission. With the virus under control, we would not have to close all the businesses and have everyone stay at home".

He also agrees there is a need for increased hygiene measures and social distancing during forthcoming months, a challenge for a culture like the Spanish, who are demonstrative and tactile: "We need to be responsible even though it is hard for us to adapt, because another wave of the virus would be very bad for us psychologically."

A step backwards, he says, would mean "losing everything we have achieved during these weeks" and this means combining social responsibility with the authorities' obligations: "The virus caught us out, but the highest possible percentage of the population needs to be tested to provide a real map of infections so that, if there is another wave, we do not learn about it because emergency departments are full again but because we have a way of detecting new positives."

During the easing of lockdown, asymptomatic people are the main threat: "A lot more people than we think are infected but have no symptoms, and they are a real problem because they feel healthy but they can spread the illness. That's why it is so important that we know about them in time."

As a good "sceptic" should, this professor isn't ruling anything out. Not even that the virus might go of its own accord: "It wouldn't be the first time that an emerging virus appears and then disappears, but we can't play with that possibility because it is improbable." It is more likely that the variants of Covid-19 become less aggressive:

"When a virus jumps from one species to another, it normally does so very violently, but then it adapts. It may not seem like it, but viruses are not interested in being lethal; they depend on their host to reproduce and survive. In evolutionary terms, they become less virulent as they adapt to new hosts. That's a general rule; there are exceptional cases, of course, but this is what normally happens."

The big difference with this coronavirus, he points out, is its great capacity for transmission. "It is too efficient at spreading, and it also causes a terrible reaction in the population at risk, as we have seen in care homes."

Although there is no scientific evidence, the community believes heat reduces the number of infections: "The large part of the virus with membrane, the membrane that of course helps it enter the cell, is sensitive to heat. In fact, one of the ways of deactivating this coronavirus when doing a diagnostic test is to subject it to high temperatures, kill it through heat so it doesn't infect those analysing the test." However, its evolution is still creating more doubts than certainties.

Data per municipality

The data per municipality, released at the end of April, after councils spent weeks calling for the information, brought some surprises in the province. At that time Malaga city had the highest number of infections, but the small village of Cuevas Bajas, with 1,395 residents, had the highest number of positive cases per capita, with more than 11 per 1,000 inhabitants (compared to Malaga city with 1.83 per 1,000 inhabitants).

Rodríguez Bejarano says it is logical that places with higher population density and tourism are more likely to have infections, but it only needs an uncontrolled outbreak in a care home or household for the infection rate per capita to shoot up, as has been the case in small villages.

"Think about an urbanisation. There may be one house where everyone is infected and another where nobody is. The problem is when people from those two houses meet. That's why it is important to detect theses sources of infection in time and isolate those who test positive or show symptoms," he says. At least, until there is a vaccine.

"And there will be one eventually, but that isn't going to happen soon," he warns.