Top of the profs
TCD immunologist hopeful that Covid-19 vaccine trials will deliver results
IF it wasn't for Covid-19, Professor Luke O'Neill would be rocking it up on a stage at the Electric Picnic in Co. Laois today.
What a difference a year makes - that's exactly what he did at last year's EP with his band, The Metabollix.
It might come as a surprise to some that Prof O'Neill, who regularly pops up on our telly screens as an informed commentator on coronavirus, could give Mick Jagger a run for his money.
"Performing in a band is my hobby," Luke tells the Sunday World. "We had great gas playing the Electric Picnic last year and were due to play it again this weekend, but obviously that's not happening."
He stresses with a laugh: "We weren't on the main stage, of course. We were playing in one of the tents in the Mindfield area.
"There are three medics in the band - the bass player is an intensive care guy in James's Hospital, the drummer is a neurologist, and we've all got lots of degrees to our name.
"We're a bunch of chancers when it comes to playing music, but we love it. I play guitar and sing a bit. We do covers of songs by bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It's party music, which people still enjoy.
"It's like a wedding band. When we tell people that we're called The Metabollix, the usual response is, 'Yeah, I met a few myself'.
"I've always been doing music. It's my big hobby. I was doing it when I was a teenager, but then I went down the science road instead. So, science's gain was music's loss."
A native of Bray, Co. Wicklow, Luke has become a household name in Ireland since March when coronavirus swept through the nation.
The respected Trinity College professor and immunologist became an instant hit with the public through his plain speaking, upbeat delivery, positive approach and sunny disposition.
Whisper it, Luke has even become something of a sex symbol.
He laughs heartily at this suggestion. "That's a big mystery to me. I can't understand it. You'd want to talk to my wife," he says.
"I've spent 35 years being an immunologist, and now we're needed. It's great that people want to talk to us, which they wouldn't necessarily have wanted in the past."
Covid-19 is the topic of the moment and Prof O'Neill will be one of the guests at The Big Think festival of talk and ideas in Galway from September 18-20.
"It will be an update on where we're at with the virus, and what the hope is for the future," Luke says of his chat at this event.
So where are we with the virus? "Every drug company, every little biotech company, and most academics like myself working in immunology, are now working on Covid-19," he says.
"It's going hell for leather. I've never seen the like of it, none of us have. Because it's such a massive problem you've never seen such an effort, I'll tell you that much.
"You've got to have hope. There are 175 vaccines now being developed. There are seven out front, and three of them look very good, they are well down the track.
"If we're lucky we'll have a read out in November or December from those initial ones.
"It's just a case of waiting for the data. There are 30,000 patient trials running at the moment, huge numbers of people are being tested. That's one of our big hopes. A vaccine is obviously the solution as that will protect people getting infected.
"The second big thing is the treatments, and they're getting better all the time. If you catch the virus and you're in hospital, doctors now have more options to give you.
"There was a big study out yesterday that dexamethasone, an anti-inflammatory drug, is saving one in three lives now for people who are on ventilators.
"That's a really good sign because it's a really cheap drug. Saving one in three is good, but the goal is to get it up to three out of three.
"There must be over 1,000 trials running now, with different approaches to treating people.
"There is hope there because some of these drugs, we feel, will make a difference.
"If the vaccine doesn't work, and there's a risk of that because it's hard to predict, better treatments in hospital will take some fear away.
"The good news is, we've learned a lot about this virus. It's not like it was back in March."
So how is Ireland doing in the war on Covid-19? "We were tantalising close to being rid of it, we came within shooting distance of eliminating it," Luke says.
"The numbers were way down for a few weeks and we were all hoping that we would become like New Zealand, where it's almost gone. And then it began to creep up, so we've now gone back a bit.
"The average number of cases for a five-day period is still pretty low, so there's no need to panic just yet.
"The threat of another lockdown is a long way off.