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Nobel laureate delays retirement to help combat COVID

Nobel laureate delays retirement to help combat COVID

Peter Doherty was preparing to retire in early 2020, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw him meeting with leading coronavirus experts and working on a new book about the pandemic instead.

“I thought I was going to retire,” the laureate professor said.

“I was 79 years old, I’d just finished our last big NHMRC grant, and I was also working on a book that I’ve been working on for ages.”

Professor Doherty won a Nobel Prize in 1996 after discovering how our immune cells destroy viruses, and has since revolutionised the field of immunology.

Last year, he joined conference calls with senior researchers from The Doherty Institute - named in his honour - to discuss the latest findings about the deadly disease.

“I haven’t been running a lab for a while, but I joined in on that, and suddenly got a sense [COVID-19] was pretty dangerous,” Professor Doherty said of the early meetings.

“My sense was I could help by being in the discussion because I’d been working on this kind of stuff for years so I have got some sort of understanding of it.

“Sitting on these morning discussions, I’m hearing details of what people who are running the diagnostics, evaluating the tests and so forth are doing.

“And though I knew superficially about the challenge, I had no idea about the actual detail that was involved.”

But his scientific work isn’t the only reason why he came to prominence during the pandemic.

In April 2020, the 80-year-old gave the internet a well-needed laugh when he accidentally asked his Twitter followers when Dan Murphys was open, mistaking the platform for Google.

“I love it. Scientists (even Nobel laureates) are human first,” one follower commented.

Predicting the pandemic

Scientists like Professor Doherty have been warning about the threat of a pandemic for decades.

In 2013, he wrote a book he jokingly described as “pandemics for dummies”, called Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know.

“It didn’t sell well because who wants to read about disease and death?”

Though the science in his book still holds up, Professor Doherty said he and other experts mistakenly believed a flu pandemic would be a threat.

“If I’d been thinking more clearly, I would have thought about coronaviruses, and what happened with SARS,” he said.

While he did predict the economic cost of the pandemic, the use of social media, and the transition to working from home, he said COVID-19 has proved to be a “steep learning curve”.

“Both on the science side - we didn’t understand the virus to begin with, it’s much more complicated than we thought,” he said.

“And also the social dimension of it - I think we’ve all been grappling with that one.

“I had no real understanding of the social dimension of [a pandemic], and I think you have to live through it to really understand that.”

Based in Melbourne, Professor Doherty and his wife Penny joined other Melbournians in the city’s 112-day lockdown during the second wave of the virus.

“It’s pretty scary because we’re both old,” he said.

He tried to stay cautious and still take regular walks, including some in his own backyard to avoid needing to wear a mask, where he would “stride up and down like on the deck of a ship”.

Looking to the future

Thinking about the next 12 months, Professor Doherty’s biggest concern is a possibility of a new variant emerging that vaccines won’t be able to protect against.

Current variants such as Delta appear to dilute the effectiveness of the vaccines but don’t prevent the immune response triggered by vaccination.

He worries that the virus could mutate in such a way that it “subverts the vaccine”, requiring scientists to modify the vaccines.

“Apart from that concern, I think we’re now really on the right track,” he said.

“What we absolutely need is for people to get vaccinated.

“[Herd immunity] is incremental. If you get 50 percent of the people vaccinated, you’d worry a lot less about locking down and all that sort of stuff.

“But if we can get to 80 percent vaccinated, I think we’d be in pretty good shape.”

Image: The Doherty Institute / Instagram

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