Less than a year ago, José Manuel Bautista (Talavera de la Reina, 1960) was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when a cholera epidemic broke out. Just a few kilometers away, a new Ebola outbreak had been detected. Today, equipped with a mask and gloves, he walks an empty campus due to a coronavirus pandemic. Three infectious diseases have surrounded him in just 12 months.
This professor from the Complutense Malaria expert is mainly responsible for the fact that, in a matter of days, six laboratories at his university and an external one, also public, were converted into nerve centers for the covid-19 tests of the nursing homes in Madrid. The elderly have been the most affected group. In those days at the end of March, Chema, as everyone calls him, and his colleagues were following the news uneasily, knowing that they could contribute a lot. “Seeing the lack of laboratories, I put a tweet in mid-March offering our facilities. The rector himself called me and told me to move forward. There we began to assemble everything and my role was to organize a little and coordinate the protocols with the Carlos III Health Institute “, he details.
Graduated in Veterinary Medicine from Complutense, he was a professor at the University of Extremadura between 1982 and 1988, the year in which he began his postdoctoral research at Imperial College London. In 1991 he returned to the faculty from which he left as a student, now to set up his own laboratory.
On his first trip to Africa, in 1997, he was finally able to face what he had been studying for years. “There you are aware that research is really attached to something real, more than you can imagine inside the laboratory,” he says. After that first contact, many others have followed to continue their investigative work, to train teachers and also to carry out cooperation projects.
Fifteen years ago he reformed six Ghanaian dispensaries run by a group of nuns, so that they could identify and care for malaria patients. “You realize that an investigator can also contribute tangible things that are not necessarily great discoveries, but bring simple mechanisms to real life,” he points out.
The professor recognizes that these experiences had a lot to do with his determination to involve his institution in the fight against covid-19. “When you start projects like this in similar conditions, you realize that things can be done in much more complicated environments than in Spain. If you work in areas with much more deprivation, you say to yourself: ‘Of course we can do it here something with all the means we have. “
Bautista has worked in Ghana, Mauritius, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and Senegal. In the latter country, he himself fell ill with malaria
Apart from Ghana, Baptist has also worked in Mauritius, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and Senegal. In the latter country, during a trip to the south in 2012, he began to feel bad. Fever, chills, headache. He had fallen ill with his own ailment that he has been studying for almost 30 years: malaria. “I had a hard time, but hey, I took medication and spent several days in bed,” he recalls now with a smile.
The malariologist claims that having seen epidemics so closely makes you more aware that infectious diseases are a real threat, but that, like many others, he thought that the European health system could support something like this. “We have been surprised by the biology of the virus, it has driven doctors, scientists and the whole world crazy. It spreads very easily and has pathologies ranging from none to death, and that is quite unusual,” he explains.
His phone rings many times during the four-hour tour of the laboratories this morning on May 15 (a public holiday in Madrid). Many more rang out between the end of March and the beginning of April when he was in charge of all the efforts: coordinating with the regional government the taking of samples in the residences, directing the bureaucracy to the rectory, coordinating with senior officials from various ministries. Bautista stresses: “This has been possible because dozens of elite scientists have volunteered without thinking twice.”
—You think that all this will serve so that the lesson is learned and we invest more in science?
“I don’t know, things are forgotten quickly.”