Allocution by Olivier Véran
COVID-19: Advances and Remaining Challenges
Paris, September 29th - October 1st, 2021

Olivier Véran

Institut Pasteur

October 1, 2021

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear colleagues,

Good afternoon to you all,

 

The Institut Pasteur, at the forefront of efforts to tackle infectious diseases for more than a century, has been a constant presence through our recent history and the many threats to public health that we have continued to face, from diphtheria, tetanus, tuberculosis and polio to influenza, yellow fever, epidemic plague, hepatitis B and HIV. So many diseases were discovered and brought under control thanks to the efforts of the Institut Pasteur.

So you are gathered here in a place of science, a place of encounters, a place of remarkable history that has contributed to France's standing on the world stage, with many of its scientists decorated with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

I would like to thank all the delegates, some of whom have come from far afield – the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Israel, the United States, China and South Africa –, and also the institutions represented – the CNRS, Inserm, the ANRS, SPF, the CDC, WHO and many others that I cannot list here.

The event that brought you to the Institut Pasteur for the past two days featured a prestigious line-up, with specialists from all over the world who are known and recognized in their respective fields. And rightly so, in an epidemic context that has proven – if proof were needed – that coordination and discussion are crucial in mounting an effective response to an unprecedented global challenge.

 

Your discussions have touched on:

  • Issues related to evolutionary microbiology, drawing our attention to the constant interactions that take place in the living world, the ecological principles underpinning communicable diseases, the importance of the environment and, in response, the need for genomic surveillance.
  • Epidemiological issues, too, whether modes of transmission or how to assess the impact of each restrictive measure adopted. These issues have played a central part in the day-to-day lives of our fellow citizens in recent months, turning epidemiology into a subject of discussion almost like any other. If you had told me during my medical training that one day the modes of transmission of a virus would be the preferred topic of conversation over Sunday lunch, I don't know whether I would have believed you. More seriously though, assessing the impact of the innovative measures adopted is of major importance, and the actual effectiveness of the health pass, for example, merits investigation, since it is affecting the daily lives of people all over the world.
  • You have discussed therapeutics, from the initial frustration at curative therapies – even though we are now starting to see encouraging results – to the surprise at highly effective vaccines which have revealed the revolutionary potential of the mRNA technique. With France recently passing the milestone of 50 million people having received at least one vaccine dose, the results show extremely high effectiveness and an excellent level of tolerance, not to mention a dramatic about-turn over vaccine hesitancy in France. This vaccine, which was still in the process of development just one year ago, is an outstanding feat of research, but one that has unfortunately not escaped the headwinds of ignorance, mistrust and conspiracy theories – and this is also one of the key lessons that we can take away from the health crisis. Communicating research results has become a real challenge in the research process, a sort of final straight that must not be neglected under any circumstances.
     
  • Another important subject is particular population groups, such as children and also those who go on to develop long-term symptoms with highly complex pathophysiological mechanisms, requiring specific treatment.
  • Finally, humanities and social sciences played a part in your discussions, and this is a particular source of encouragement for me because these dimensions are crucial in our efforts to foster accurate perceptions of the disease. I mentioned the headwinds of conspiracy theories a moment ago, and this is a huge challenge facing us, because today we are seeing the very authority of scientific expertise being undermined.

 

Thanks to the progress made in research, we can now be reasonably hopeful that we are emerging from this crisis, that we are closer to the "end" than the beginning.

Without drawing detailed conclusions, we can already identify some preliminary lessons about the role of research:

The first lesson is that rigorous research is a key part of the response to the epidemic. Over the past few months, we have witnessed the responsiveness, agility and coordination of research – far from the clichés of a research ecosystem that is separate from world events and the urgent issues of our time.

The achievements of research have been all the greater because all the links in the chain have played their part: basic research, clinical research, industrialization, implementation – every sector and every stakeholder rose to the task and coordinated their efforts.

The second lesson is the need for a global response, an international movement of solidarity that leaves no one by the wayside. Vaccination reminds us of this, because if entire swathes of humanity do not have access to the vaccines, the effectiveness of our strategy is jeopardized.

The final lesson I would point to, and this is something on which I place particular importance, is the need for a One Health approach, because the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of the close links between human health, animal health and environmental health.

We know that humankind, with its impact on biodiversity, climate and the erosion of ecosystems, must accept its part of responsibility in the transmission of emerging zoonotic viral infections.

The health challenge is therefore inextricably intertwined with the environmental challenge, and it makes no sense to approach the two separately.

 

Thank you very much.

 

 

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