Nobel Laureate Q & A: Professor Peter Doherty

One of the world’s Nobel Laureates recommends building more energy-efficient buildings as one way to protect our health from global warming.

Australian Nobel Laureate and author, Professor Peter Doherty, 77, recently met with The Green Herald to talk about the health impacts of climate change from his acclaimed perspective, punctured with his own sense of humour.

In 1996, Professor Doherty shared The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Professor Rolf Zinkernagel, for discovering the nature of cellular immune defence, resulting in the development of further vaccines and medicines for infectious diseases.

He was awarded Australia’s highest honour in 1997, the Companion of the Order of Australia (AC).

Laureate Professor Peter Doherty and The Green Herald’s Caroline Gonzalez

TGH: Can you think of any climate change health impacts that will force us to potentially develop a raft of vaccines for diseases that we don’t yet have?

Prof Doherty: There are whole families of viruses that we could think about as potential threats but you can’t really predict. There’s been a whole lot of stuff about what will be the next influenza, you can’t do it actually. I know there are various people who try, but you just can’t predict these things.

We just had a meeting on influenza this week – it’s the 100th anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed more people than the First World War. The First World War killed 37 million people. The flu pandemic probably killed 50 (million) – maybe 100 because they didn’t count them neither in African colonies very well, with the communication systems and the rest of it, so we don’t know.

We’d like to know better how to make vaccines against a lot of things more quickly. It still takes six months for us to get a flu vaccine out there after we start a pandemic and that’s one of the most familiar vaccines on the planet.

So when you see a movie like…Contagion, it is really quite good. I talk about it in all my slides. They discover a vaccine and two days later they’re giving it to everybody. Well, it just doesn’t work like that.

What you want to do is have very good diagnosis and very good health professionals who are looking at any outbreak anywhere on the planet. And the American CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, has been doing that.

Look at China for instance – they have at least two enormous infectious disease hospitals that are ready for a pandemic. There’s one on the outskirts of Shanghai I visited, that has about six or eight hospital buildings – seven of them aren’t in use, they are just being maintained and the eighth one is in use. But what would happen if they had a major pandemic is: infectious disease professionals from all over the country would go there and they would boot this thing up. And there’s another one (infectious disease hospital) outside Beijing and in Hong Kong.

TGH: Was it ever a goal of yours to have something like The Doherty Institute?

Prof Doherty: No, absolutely not. I started as a vet so if things had gone the way my career would have normally gone – within a reasonably successful career – I would’ve been director of the Geelong lab with the CSIRO, that’s where I was headed. And then we made a big discovery and took me off-track. I would have been living in Ocean Grove…and I would have been retired for at least 12 to 15 years. I’m still not fully retired, I’m working three days a week.

The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne – “the closest thing to a CDC (Communicable Disease Centre) in Australia” says Prof Doherty – consists of a:

  • University academic department
  • State viral diagnostic lab
  • State bacterial diagnostic lab
  • World Health Organisation (WHO) Influenza Centre (one of six in the world).

TGH: What do you think countries like Australia should be doing for adaptation for the health impacts of climate change?

Prof Doherty: In so many buildings here in this city, there’s no double-glazing, little or no insulation, nor energy-efficiency…and no plants around them. What we need to be building, are healthy buildings – buildings that will actually protect people from extremes of temperature. I think that’s one thing we could be doing at a relatively limited cost, but we’re not doing it.

If we’re going tackle this, it’s like any big issue…it has to be done through government. What really matters is to get the right policy settings in place. If you have the right policy setting, then things will start to happen.

I’m so despairing about the politicians, I think this is a terrible (Federal Australian) government.

TGH: What are you up to nowadays?

Prof Doherty:  I help out and particularly with writing stuff up. I’ve been trying to train people to write. People don’t write very well…particularly scientists.

I’m so sick of scientific writing – I mean, it’s awful!

The people who work with me are supervising the students. I sort of go to lab meetings and give my 10 cents worth occasionally.

Postscript

Laureate Professor Doherty – who spent most of his active research career in the United States at the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis – is writing his sixth book due out in October.

It’s based on his extensive global travels for his work over many years.

“It’s called The Incidental Tourist, some rotten person had stolen The Accidental Tourist!,” Prof Doherty says with a grin.

Laureate Professor Peter Doherty

Laureate Professor Peter Dohert

What are the health impacts of climate change?

Impacts can be direct – a heatwave – or indirect – such as increased risk of tick-borne diseases due to changes in the environment. The impacts heavily depend on whether you live in a developed or developing country.

Here is a short list:

  • heat stress
  • malnutrition
  • rise in asthma
  • increase in malaria, dengue
  • rise in bacteria and viruses.

Sources: World Health Organisation ‘Climate change and health’,  IPCC AR5 Working Group II Chapter 11, ‘Human Health: Impacts, Adaptation, and Co-Benefits.

Prof Doherty’s recommended actions:

  1. Get involved in citizen science.
  2. Install solar panels.
  3. Insulate your home.
  4. Build energy-efficient homes and buildings.

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