The popular doctor at the COVID-19 dance
Posted on Wednesday, February 17, 2021
By Michelle Read
Dr. Hugues Loemba’s phone has been ringing off the hook since last March. It’s rare that he doesn’t take the call.
“We have to find a way to be available when asked to give our scientific opinions on the COVID-19 pandemic,” he explains. “If we don’t, we will be overcome by alternative facts and conspiracy theories.”
Despite a busy life of clinical duties, research projects and academic responsibilities, Dr. Loemba has become an important voice in the media din of the pandemic. In fact, it’s precisely this diverse career that has groomed him to speak to the science of the novel coronavirus.
Attacking COVID-19 from all directions
Dr. Loemba graduated top of his MD class in 1986 with a combined medical/epidemiology degree from Kiev Medical University, Ukraine. After focusing his clinical work on the HIV pandemic in the Congo, he travelled to Canada in 1993 to begin a master’s degree in virology and immunology in Laval, Quebec at INRS-Institut Armand Frappier, world renowned for studying viruses and producing vaccines.
“I studied porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRSS) virus, a virus of the same family as the coronavirus; my work helped produce a vaccine against it,” he says. “They have the same shape, genomic organization and replication strategy, so I already knew what we were dealing with when this new coronavirus of COVID-19 arrived.”
Following yet another degree in virology at McGill University AIDS Centre—this time a PhD in Experimental Medicine focusing on HIV variants, mainly HIV-1 subtype C drug resistance genetic diversity—Dr. Loemba made his way to the University of Ottawa. Now a clinician-researcher, family doctor and virologist, as well as an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine, he is in hot demand from media because of his unique qualifications discusss the science of the pandemic.
“Virologists like me can speak to the basic science behind COVID-19,” says Dr. Loemba, who as a clinician-scientist and virologist is affiliated with Montfort Hospital and University of Ottawa Health Services. “But also being a physician, I can discuss the clinical outcomes of the disease and understand it from all angles.”
Stepping up to counter misinformation
The pandemic is happening at a time when social media is rife with conspiracy theories, says Dr. Loemba, with everything aligned for people to mistrust scientific information.
“We’re seeing an erosion in the trust of science, a rise in populism in many countries, and an overall promotion of alternative facts,” he says.
“I will say, we have to do more,” he cautions. “As professionals we have many commitments, but I try as much as I can to be available to the media to help simplify complex medical information in a lay manner so that the public can relate and make informed choices.”
The vaccine is a powerful tool in returning to a normal way of functioning, he says, explaining the science is critical in ensuring people play their part in beating the disease. “If we can get to 70% of people being vaccinated, the virus won’t have anywhere to go.”
Putting research to work
Dr. Loemba’s research work includes exploring new methods for diagnosing COVID-19, as well as seeking new anti-viral treatments against the disease.
“We have vaccines, but we still don’t have a cure,” he says. “No medication against the virus has been accepted by the scientific community, so much needs to be done at this stage.”
Dr. Loemba is involved in public health-related research on COVID-19 in Ontario, intended to strengthen providers’ capacities to implement best practices in communities of colour. He also works internationally with his lab in the Congo, set up in collaboration with la Fondation Marie Madeleine Gombes, a local humanitarian organization.
“This cutting-edge laboratory is powered by solar panels, and it has a P3 biosafety negative pressure room to allow safe handling of infectious biological materials such as HIV or COVID-19 diagnostic samples,” he says. “The lab, originally established to conduct research in the midst of the HIV pandemic, represents a focal point enabling us to carry out collaborative clinical research projects on COVID-19 between Canadian scientists and Africans researchers.”
The path forward
Many questions remain about the novel coronavirus and its implications, says Dr. Loemba, including the optimal transmission of the virus; the duration of immune response produced by the vaccines; and the need for antiviral medications to treat infected patients.
The function of many of the virus’s genes, ergo the biological properties of the virus, are also poorly understood—making it difficult to fully understand what drives it, as well as its implications. “The clinical picture continues to vary from patient to patient,” Dr. Loemba muses.
Adding to the mystery is the arrival of variants of the disease, which look to be much more transmissible, Dr. Loemba says. With such cases on the rise and so many unknowns remaining, he shares his advice for moving forward.
“If we don’t double down on our efforts, in a couple of months these new strains will become the most prevalent,” he says. “We must up the testing for these new variants and step up our contact tracing. And of course, we should also continue to adhere to public health measures of social distancing, the wearing of masks and hand-washing.”
With COVID-19 the Mount Everest of modern-day health challenges, Dr. Loemba is just the right guide to accompany the world on its journey.
And he’ll likely take your call at the summit.
Main photo: Dr. Loemba (2nd from left) works internationally with his lab in the Congo carrying out collaborative clinical research projects on COVID-19 between Canadian scientists and African researchers. Rick Galli (2nd from right), a Canadian HIV researcher, is the former chief technical officer of BioLytical Laboratories Inc, a Vancouver based biotech company and HIV rapid test manufacturer.
All photos: Dr. Hugues Loemba