“Upon entering his office, I saw this man not very tall, very dry, thin beard, dressed in a very simple way. But the most striking thing was his anger. An angry man “, recalls Astrid Vabret, head of the virology department of the Caen University Hospital. We are in 1997 and the angry man is a world authority, the only specialist in France of the coronaviruses, whose last representative, SARS-CoV-2, at the origin of Covid-19, invaded the daily newspaper of the planet whole since the beginning of the year.
If Hubert Laude, 48 at the time, looked so unhappy, it was because he was asked to dissolve his little team after twenty years of studying these fascinating viruses. “I have been struggling for a few years to maintain activity with non-renewed positions and declining means”, recalls this veterinarian who joined the National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA) in 1972.
Twenty-three years later, this modest man does not speak of anger at the cessation of this research on this fashionable subject. “At the time, I was bitter because virology was my passion. I have always loved animals, which I already knew well from my veterinary father. But, after leaving veterinary school, I decided to make my job of studying these little beasts that are viruses. “
“Images in electron microscopy”
After initial work on the swine fever virus, he became interested, from 1978, in a disease that wreaked havoc in pig farms, decimating the entire piglet population in a few weeks. This porcine gastroenteritis is due to a coronavirus, a virus recognizable by its “projections” in the shape of a peak around its envelope. “We only had electron microscopy images. Nothing about the structure, the genes… ”, recalls the researcher, who, in a few years, clears the field.
His team identifies the protein constituting these projections, or spicules, which serve to bind to the target cells. It identifies the gene that codes for this protein. “It took two months to find around 8,000“ letters ”out of 30,000, when it took the Chinese a few days to do the same on SARS-CoV-2”, he says, to recall the technical progress in thirty years.
His team will also publish the complete genetic sequence of the virus … in 1995! And that identifies the protein in the intestinal cells to which the virus attaches to infect them. “Hubert was very rigorous and scrupulous. He was also very sober in outdoor demonstrations. We didn't even open a bottle of champagne for our good results, recalls Bernard Delmas, a researcher at INRA, Hubert Laude's first PhD student on this subject. All these results were obtained without specific funding, just with the laboratory's operating money. Those days are over. “