It was always clear to her that science would accompany her throughout her life. Melissa Belló Pérez, 30 years old and a native of Santa Pola, is one of the researchers at the coronavirus laboratory of the CSIC National Center for Biotechnology, who, under the command of virologist Luis Enjuanes, are trying to design the intranasal vaccine that will put in check to the disease.
What benefits will this type of inoculation bring?
It is essential that it be intranasal because this type of vaccination generates a sterilizing protection, it means that it not only protects us from the disease but also from infection. If I am vaccinated intranasally I will not be able to infect other people, and protection is achieved with a single dose instead of two. Now we have to avoid contagion, people enter the ICU much less, they are not collapsed, but the problem is that the virus continues to spread very quickly, we would need to prevent that spread, which would be achieved with that vaccine.
Why wasn’t she thought of at first?
The others have been placed intramuscularly because developing this type of vaccine is much faster. Intranasal needs further safety trials. We were facing a health emergency and speed prevailed, in fact we do not have any intranasal vaccine on the market with respect to covid.
And when will it see the light?
We are talking about the medium-long term. There are still animal tests. The vaccine is patented but we have not passed the clinical phase, it may or may not go quickly, but it will not be for this year.
What tests have been done?
We already tested it in mice by the intranasal route because the natural route of infection is intranasal. Similarly, now I am going to stay for six months in Rotterdam (Holland) to learn new techniques at Erasmus University to see if we can reduce the number of animals in tests through the organoid system. We are constantly working and learning.
She has a doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the UMH. How did you get the opportunity to closely investigate covid?
I finished my thesis in July 2019 and before that I contacted laboratories and research centers. The university knew what it was but I also wanted to train myself to see which part I liked the most. I looked at the CSIC for the groups in which I would like to work and I joined in October 2019, in the group of Luis Enjuanes. I started working with Mers, a deadly coronavirus that is transmitted from camels to people. It is something that has not been eradicated, which has a 30% mortality rate, and there are still sporadic cases in Saudi Arabia. But that same December the case of the new coronavirus comes out when there were few in Wuhan.
That changed everything…
Of course, when a new coronavirus came out it was an emergency thing to have to know about it and the whole laboratory started working on that project, and the one we had before we left about 20% work. We knew that there could be a health alert, because we worked with Mers and Sars 1 and in reality we had no cases in Spain.
How has the working group been shaped during the pandemic?
I think we are 15 now. We have had to incorporate people into the group, we have trained them to work at biological safety level 3, which is not easy because we have to wear special protective suits, and working inside requires training . We have the section that deals with the development of the execution of vaccines, and the other, where I am, that deals more with the design. We began to study which were the components of the virus that, when eliminated, attenuated it, and to see what strategies to design the vaccine that we wanted. Then there is another section for animal testing.
How do the different variants of the virus affect the design of the vaccine?
The protein that is mutating the most within the variants is the Spike protein, which is found on the surface of the virus, responsible for allowing the virus to enter cells. Different spikes are being introduced to build immunity between the different variants. We are looking at which variant we should protect against so that it protects from the maximum number of variants that are coming out.