A coffee break is an ideal meeting time for someone as quietly frenetic as Frannie Léautier. At the end of a long day of her virtual meetings ... in several different time zones, we connect via the ubiquitous Zoom, sipping our East African coffee as we work through my lengthy roster of questions.
CNN, ABC News, Fox… For the past two months, Professor Lbachir BenMohamed has been omnipresent in US media and comes up in all discussions centred around Covid. This is due to the fact that he is leading a team at the University of California, Irvine that is currently developing a universal vaccine that would protect against all forms of Covid-19, as well as possible new variants.
No one could have foreseen that this man from Tagante, an Amazigh village 18km from Guelmim, Morocco, would become an expert in the field of immunology and the head of one of the most important research laboratories in the US.
Born in 1968 into a working-class family, his father — Lahcen — was a shepherd and then a miner in northern France for 10 years before he opened a small grocery shop in Guelmim. BenMohamed first wanted to become a doctor like the Moroccan-American researcher Moncef Slaoui.
An ode to perseverance
But after failing the entrance exam for the faculty of medicine in Casablanca in 1984, he decided to study biology at the Ibn Zohr University in Agadir. He then joined the Pasteur Institute in Paris as an intern and eventually defended a doctoral thesis in immunology, on a vaccine against malaria.
A brilliant researcher and hard worker, he completed his post-doctoral thesis in the US. He rose through the ranks at the University of California; beginning as a teacher, then becoming an assistant professor, associate professor, professor and finally, director of the cellular and molecular immunology laboratory. His story is a formidable success story and an ode to perseverance.
Today, he is leading a team of nine researchers tasked with developing this universal vaccine, which the US has invested $4m in, as well as a revolutionary vaccine patch device. He also hasn’t forgotten his roots: he hopes to open Africa’s first immunology institute in Morocco.
You are currently developing a universal vaccine that would protect against all forms of Covid-19, including its future variants. How did you come up with this idea?
Lbachir BenMohamed: Covid-19 is neither the first nor the last pandemic caused by a coronavirus. Before that there was SARS-CoV-1, MERS, etc. Less than a year after the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, at least three variants have appeared in South Africa, Brazil and the UK.
These new variants have already developed ‘immunity’ which protects them from existing vaccines. Covid-19 is a highly malignant virus that is constantly mutating in order to ensure its survival. Immunologists and virologists refer to this as ‘immune invasion.’
In this battle between humans and Covid-19, we must therefore be smarter than the latter and anticipate its ‘defence strategies’ by developing a vaccine capable of targeting all its strains and variants, even those that have not yet appeared.
Indeed, it is very possible that a Covid-25 or Covid-30 will emerge in the next few years. So the question is not ‘Will there be another pandemic?’ but rather, ‘When will the next pandemic be?’
How would this universal vaccine work? How does it differ from current vaccines?
Most of the current vaccines — Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson — target the spike protein on the surface of the Covid-19 envelope, which allows it to bind to a cell receptor and then enter the cells of the lungs. The virus then replicates and causes lung damage, which we have already observed.
However, if a mutation occurs, these vaccines are no longer sufficient. This is why we have chosen — in order to develop our universal vaccine — to target not just the spike protein, but the entire genetic make-up common to all known strains and variants of this virus: some 10 proteins which will not only make it possible to fight the current pandemic, but also to deal with future mutations.
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We are in preclinical studies right now. We are testing 15 universal candidate vaccines on mice, which we vaccinate and then expose to Covid-19 variants, to see which of these 15 vaccines will protect them best. The most effective one will be tested in human clinical trials [the last phase before marketing] in late 2021 or early 2022 at the latest.
Since Covid-19 will mutate, are the current vaccines useless? In a way, they are protecting against a version that is already obsolete…
We are in a race against time to prevent the possible appearance of new variants of Covid-19, which is still circulating and mutating a lot. So the faster we vaccinate, the less likely it is that new, more dangerous variants will appear.
Vaccination is not only an act of individual protection, but also an act of citizenship, which allows each country to achieve herd immunity more quickly and in addition, save the economy. This is a very important issue because every day, jobs are lost and companies go bankrupt.
When did you start working on Covid-19?
As soon as the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China and the genomic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was published, my team and I became interested in its structure, particularities and its mode of operation. As early as July 2020, we published an article predicting the emergence of more virulent variants and stressing the need to find a universal vaccine.
This is a major project, which we are working on around the clock and which the US government has allocated $4m towards, plus private funding. These significant resources allow us to focus on obtaining results quickly.
How do you explain the fact that France, where you defended your doctoral thesis in immunology and which is historically a pioneer in this field, has not yet found a vaccine?
France has excellent researchers and cutting-edge research centres — such as the Pasteur Institute — but they are, in a way, restricted in their approach. The problem with research in France is that they don’t take risks. In fact, they only finance a project if they are sure it will succeed.
Unlike the US, there is no culture of risk-taking yet this is the basis of all discoveries. When you start a research project, you don’t know if it will succeed; but if you don’t try, you won’t find out.
Furthermore, there is a lack of flexibility in decision-making. Even when a research subject gets support, the administrative procedures to organise this are often slow.
Is this what prompted you to move to the US?
Among other things. The US is a paradise for researchers: as soon as you have an innovative idea and a promising subject, very substantial resources are made available to you. Public and private funders are ready to invest in a research topic as long as they are presented with the right arguments and understand how it will be applied.
Within the universities themselves, there is a whole framework that allows you to go from basic to applied research and commercialisation for example, by encouraging people to set up companies when the projects are particularly innovative. I moved to the US because of this research environment.
Another factor in my decision was the opportunities for advancement that were available to me. In France, in addition to the administrative hassle of obtaining a residence permit, your chances are not the same depending on whether your name is Ahmed or Stéphane.
With a name like Lbachir BenMohamed, I was starting out with a serious handicap, which condemned me to a form of invisibility. Despite one’s talent and skills, it is very difficult for a north African to find a place within the French research world.
Is the French scientific community closed in on itself?
No, the picture is not so black and white. France offers high-quality training to students from all over the world. I have benefited from this myself and my time spent at the University of Jussieu and the Pasteur Institute was invaluable, to say the least. I also met brilliant and inspiring French researchers who were very open minded. Some of them became my friends.
Nevertheless, one cannot deny that there is an element of co-optation and networking in this environment which I believe is incompatible with science. This does not only apply to foreigners but also — to a lesser extent — those who come from the provinces and do not have a large number of contacts.
Beyond the networks, French society still rejects those who want to break out of the assigned role of the ‘token Arab’ and move forward. It’s very difficult to navigate your way out of this obstacle course, and some never do. I am thinking of fellow scientists — of Arab or sub-Saharan origin –who are very capable but have remained in France and not advanced as far as they deserve to, professionally.
It’s a real shame. The French should realise that diversity is an excellent thing and a source of wealth, especially in fields such as science and art.
For example, at the university where I teach in California — beyond strictly technical skills or scientific knowledge — we are encouraged to cultivate a lot of diversity, whether it is linked to gender or origin, when it comes to recruiting students and researchers. A good research group is a heterogeneous and multi-ethnic group, where ideas are able to flow.
It is these diverse ideas, coming from students and researchers from all over the world, that often lead to innovation and success. While it is true that in France things have started to change in recent years, and that minorities are becoming more and more visible, there is still a lot of work to be done.
What do you think of France’s anti-coronavirus strategy? This series of semi-lockdowns?
This approach of lockdown, reopening, and then lockdown is unfortunately ineffective. The number of new cases of Covid-19 will continue to remain high until the population has been widely vaccinated and social distancing measures are respected. However, this seems to be far from the case, according to statistics and various incidents — such as secret parties — that have been reported in the press.
Furthermore, these semi-confinements encourage family and friends to gather at home, which gives the virus more chance to circulate. The majority of virus transmissions take place indoors, not outdoors.
To be successful, total lockdowns must be introduced and accompanied by an active vaccination campaign, so as not to give the more dangerous variants a chance to emerge. Today, in the US, three million people are vaccinated every day. It is expected that herd immunity will be achieved in the coming months. It is hoped that this will also be the case in France and other countries around the world, in order to eradicate this killer virus from the planet.
We must act quickly and proceed rapidly with a large-scale vaccination campaign. Let’s not forget that the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 — which killed more than 50 million people — was caused by the emergence of a single variant of the flu virus, resulting from mutations that made it more deadly and contagious. It is important to accelerate the pace of vaccination to avoid the same scenario.
In addition to the universal vaccine that you are working on, you have developed a patch device to administer it. This technique could revolutionise how vaccines are administered.
Yes, my team and I are working on developing a patch to administer the vaccine, similar to the nicotine patch used by people who want to stop smoking.
Distributing a traditional vaccine is very costly in terms of transport, storage conditions, mobilising health care staff, etc. In total, distributing and administering a vaccine is six times more expensive than manufacturing the vaccine itself.
Thanks to this patch technology — which we have patented — it will be very easy to distribute and deliver these vaccines, even to the most remote areas where there are no facilities or medical staff, and to the poorest of countries, since it can be sent in a simple envelope. It could even be self-administered by the patient, as it is so easy to use.
You seem very concerned about the fate of developing countries. Is this a way of staying true to your roots?
There is probably a point to all this. I was born in an Amazigh village in Tagante, near Guelmim. I don’t come from a wealthy background, quite the contrary. But I am where I am today, thanks not only to my family but also to a whole village and entourage that believed in me, very early on, when I was a child and came back from school with good results.
Then later, once I had completed my secondary studies, the inhabitants of the douar used to say: “Lbachir, he will be a doctor”, “Lbachir, he will go far”, “Lbachir is destined for a great future”…
These phrases expressed the faith that the villagers had in me: they inspired me for years and continue to do so. It was like a prophecy, and at the same time, it nourished a form of loyalty and gratitude within me. I was determined never to disappoint these people.
At the time, I didn’t know exactly where to go, but I knew that I had to advance as much as possible in what I was doing. I wanted to do something great, something that would live up to the trust they had in me and what they had dreamed of, foreseen for me, and which had become my destiny. I am eternally grateful to them.
How can the son of a grocer from Guelmim become the head of a large research laboratory in California?
With confidence, determination and perseverance, success is within everyone’s reach. Well, I want to give hope to all young Africans — whether Moroccan, Tunisian or Senegalese — who are talented but often without hope, believing they are doomed because they were not dealt a good hand when they were born.
As far as I am concerned, I am not the son of a minister or a CEO and I did all my schooling at Moroccan public schools: Sidi Ahmed Derkaoui primary school in the Tagante douar; secondary school at the El Hassan El Hadrami college in Guelmim and Bab Sahra high school. Finally, I obtained my degree in biology at the Ibn Zohr Faculty of Sciences in Agadir.
I had no model of success, just a love of studying and the conviction that I had to move forward as much as possible. This is what led me to pursue my studies in France, where I did my doctorate, and then a post-doctorate in the US.
What is the secret of your success?
There is no secret, just work, work and more work. I spend three-quarters of my time on it. I believe in the saying: ‘The bigger you dream, the bigger you get.’ I believe in setting the most ambitious goal possible and sticking to it. Be persistent, patient and courageous. Stay focused, attentive and on the lookout. To do this, you must avoid unnecessary distractions and addictions of all kinds, be they video games or drugs.
You are working on setting up an institute of vaccinology and immunotherapy in Morocco. Do you think the kingdom could become a hub for the manufacture of vaccines and immunotherapies in Africa?
Absolutely. Morocco has one of the most advanced pharmaceutical industries on the continent and competent human resources. During this pandemic, we saw how capable this industry is of adapting and responding quickly. We saw this particularly with regards to masks and respirators, as well as in the country’s rapid vaccination rollout. All these factors prove that Morocco is a country that is capable of developing and manufacturing vaccines as well as immunotherapies.
Will this be a public, private or mixed institute?
This has not yet been decided. Discussions with Moroccan officials are underway, and all options are being considered.
Last December, Morocco and Israel re-established their diplomatic relations. Do you think a partnership in vaccine research is possible between the two countries?
Why not… Everything is possible. Research and development have no origin or religion.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of epidemics: Ebola, SARS, MERS, and now Covid-19. Can we expect new global epidemics in the future?
Due to the accelerated development of the last 20 years, coupled with environmental degradation, deforestation and over-industrialisation, humans are constantly conquering territories previously occupied by wild animals.
In order to defend themselves and their territory, these animals — such as bats, pangolins and certain primates — spread all kinds of pathogens that can be transmitted to humans. Some 75% of these new viruses come from animals. Bats are reservoirs for coronaviruses, mosquitoes for dengue fever and primates for Ebola and AIDS.
These emerging diseases are causing an increase in epidemics, as we have seen over the last 20 years. The Covid-19 pandemic may just be a harbinger of things to come.
People need to realise that they do not live alone on this planet and that there is no ‘Planet B.’ To prevent the transmission of new pathogens, we must improve our relationship with animals and respect their habitat. Otherwise, the worst is yet to come and new epidemics will emerge.
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