“It was a big mistake and I assume it“. This is recognized by the epidemiologist Oriol Mitjá when presenting his memoirs on the pandemic, An open heart – One year with an open heart [Destino]. It refers to the press conference de the Generalitat of Catalonia on March 16, 2020 to announce its great trial with hydroxychloroquine, with more than a hundred researchers, thousands of participants, which would raise more than one million euros in private donations and which advanced “encouraging results” in within 21 days. “We thought it would be successful. And it wasn’t ”.
The chapters dedicated to the essay carried out in Igualada (Conca d’Òdena) and the northern metropolitan region of Barcelona, which were already confined when the first state of alarm was decreed, are one of the few moments of self-criticism that we will find in the work. The figure of Mitjá has been one of the most controversial of the pandemic, only surpassed by that of Fernando Simón, by inextricably mixing science with politics in his activity and discourse. He stirs: “I renounce partisanship “, declares. “I have no ambition for power or prestige, and I am not afraid to stand up to the authorities if it is in defense of the community”.
Embracing his own contradictions, his book is still a reckoning with public officials and journalists who, in his opinion, treated him disloyally. A corrected and expanded version of the episodes we have seen live on Twitter. First, your Promotion to an icon of independence after criticizing Felipe VI and the Ministry of Health, becoming an advisor to Quim Torra; the first cracks, with their filtration in networks of the fights between Government departments in the response to the pandemic; and, as the third act, his frontal attack against ERC and the PSOE asking to punish them at the polls during the Catalan elections.
Mitjá is a baffling personality, a scientist who deplores that politics “pollutes science” while diving into it, and a self-confessed “introvert” who never shies from the media spotlight. In its most intimate and autobiographical passages, it opens a window for the reader: it seems that it conceives epidemiology as a struggle between good and evil, which he must fight in all areas of society and in which he is called to lead the charge. It is a cosmogony that sins as a Manichean: only those who ally themselves with him seem to be on the side of the truth, as is the case with José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whom he finally quotes without studs.
The success of a “failure”
This is the point of self-criticism. “You have to understand the context,” Mitjá clarifies to this newspaper. The The essay was scientifically “very well founded”, with the endorsement of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And it is true that, in the early stages of the pandemic, hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that seemed to cut off the infection of cells by the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2It was promising. Treating those infected with HIV antivirals was another line of research, sponsored by Mitjá’s mentor, Dr. Bonaventura Clotet, from the Germans Trias i Pujol Hospital and from IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute.
The atmosphere on March 16 was euphoric. La Spanish Agency for Medicines and Health Products (AEMPS) had approved the emergency trial. Doses of the antiretroviral darunavir / cobicistat with the aim of reducing the duration of the disease and hydroxychloroquine that would be provided to close contacts of the patient, with the idea that they would prevent contagion. Even the language appeared processist. “This is a country project,” declared Robert Fabregat, director of research and innovation of the Department of Health, to which the minister, Alba Vergés, vehemently agreed.
Mitjá admits that they were infected by “a ray of hope.” The dimensions were “pharaonic,” he writes. “We had in our hands the possibility of saving thousands of lives, maybe even millions!” In 24 hours, through the ‘Yomecorono’ initiative promoted by celebrities, more than one million euros was raised. The Camp Nou gave up its facilities for taking samples. An “overwhelming” job began with 120 professionals. But within a few weeks, the abyss began to loom. At the press conference, they had promised to announce results after 21 days if they were positive. “I admit that I was wrong in managing expectations. I did not calculate the risk that they were so negative.
A month later, there were no positive results to publish. Neither were there in May. Darunavir was ruled out. In June, it was found that hydroxychloroquine did not protect against contagion. National and Catalan media then began what Mitjá defines as “a smear campaign” and “partisanship”, describing the result as a personal “failure” of his. Today, when hydroxychloroquine has been left behind in the fight against the pandemic, the researcher revolts: “Tens of thousands of people received it in the first months of the pandemic. Imagine if it was not important to show that it does not work“.
The study failed, but in scientific terms, it did not fail. It was published in the magazine New England Journal of Medicine, something that Mitjá compares to “winning the UEFA Champions League for a football team.” Demonstrating the ineffectiveness of hydroxychloroquine has allowed the reorientation and refinement of research on treatments for Covid-19. The Catalan epidemiologist quotes the philosopher of science Karl Popper: “If a scientist is not willing to expose his ideas to the danger of refutation, he cannot participate in the science game.”