PAUL LEHR FOR M LE MAGAZINE DU MONDE
InvestigationSince the start of the pandemic, the staff of this French flagship in the fight against infectious diseases have been counting their hours. With a focus on developing a vaccine. Clinical trials could start in July.
That morning, the contrast surprises. Rue du Docteur-Roux, not far from Montparnasse, in the 15e district of Paris, few cars circulate, some masked passers-by move away when they meet. A cafe is open, but it is deserted. It’s the very beginning of May, the neighborhood is still anesthetized, life confined. Behind flowering chestnut trees, a security airlock opens onto another world: the Institut Pasteur. Since January, researchers have been struggling there against the coronavirus that strikes the planet. The adrenaline level is at its highest.
In the François-Jacob building (the Nobel Prize winner who died in 2013), the office doors are green, the armchairs in the atrium orange and the researchers’ dark circles black. On the top floor, at the head of the National Reference Center (CNR) for respiratory infection viruses, Sylvie van Der Werf occupies a key position. She has three rows of dark circles. Since the start of the epidemic, she has worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. “Pressure over time ends up being difficult”, she says. She allowed herself only one evening break with friends, before confinement. So long ago. She is tired, but above all worried. “The deconfinement is going to be complicated, she worries then. Extreme vigilance is needed to avoid a rebound in the epidemic. Sorry to talk like that, but this virus is a real mess. ”
While the Pasteur Institute is prohibited from visiting, we were able to spend a day in this legendary place of French research, inaugurated in 1888 by the inventor of the rabies vaccine, Louis Pasteur. Over more than 2 hectares rub shoulders with red brick buildings from the XIXe century and recent constructions. A campus where students can follow the teachings of pasteurians, among the best specialists in microbiology, immunology, global health … Where, above all, scientists continue their cutting-edge work on bacteria, parasites and viruses, responsible for 17 million died every year around the world.
International collaboration and competition
That day, out of 2,600 employees, only 370 worked on site, including 300 fully mobilized against SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19. All launched in an international race against the clock. A race that mixes a collaboration of unprecedented scale with unrestrained competition. On the one hand, scientists around the world are sharing information like never before, and Pasteur is collaborating, for example, on researching treatments with the University of California, San Francisco. On the other, the fight for a vaccine, the future “blockbuster”, is raging.
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