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Epidemiologist handling the biggest crisis of his life

In one of the leading members of the government’s advisory team on coronavirus, THEO PANAYIDES meets a congenial scientist well known around the world for his work on hepatitis, who has spent the last three months commenting to the island’s media

The Cavo Maris hotel in Protaras is eerily silent – not exactly shuttered but dormant, like a reception hall a few hours before a big wedding. Staff flit by now and then, and a cleaner is mopping the floor, but the lights are off and guests, of course, are entirely absent. Petros Karayiannis is associated with the hotel, his wife’s family being among the owners; “On the weekends, I’m a hotelier,” he jokes, as we sit in an outdoor coffee shop overlooking the sea. On weekdays, on the other hand, he’s Professor of Microbiology/Molecular Virology and Associate Dean for Faculty & Research at the University of Nicosia Medical School – and, since mid-March, a very visible member of the scientific committee advising the government on the coronavirus crisis.

We’re interrupted four times during the interview, and each interruption is significant. The first is a phone call which he takes early on; “I’ll call you back,” he says – then, with a wink at me: “I’m with one of your colleagues right now”. The other journalist is from Antenna, where Petros is due to appear in a few hours; he’s been on this or that media outlet every day for the past three months. The second interruption is by a workman, who needs to check with him about some fencing that’s being put up next to the flower beds (as he said, he’s a hotelier on weekends), the third by a youngish couple who greet him with “Congratulations, Mr. Petro! We watch you on TV!”. And the fourth interruption is by his grandchildren, four-year-old twins with exciting things going on in their own lives. “We’re going to find Mummy,” declares the little girl as they amble past in the company of their dad, Petros’ son-in-law.

There’s a fifth interruption too, initiated by Petros himself. We’ve already had coffee (his is a frappe with a little milk and no sugar), but then he pauses and suggests having a beer, which I gratefully accept. He appears to be in a good mood, possibly because that’s his style – he’s extremely congenial, a twinkly 69-year-old speaking softly and laughing frequently – but also because our national response to the virus seems to be going well. “I think possibly today we’ll have another zero [cases],” he offers hopefully (it turns out to be one case). The numbers are good, which suggests “that we didn’t really have much of a problem in the community”.

Is that surprising?

“With the very strict lockdown we had, it’s not surprising – and I think that’s where we succeeded, in comparison to a lot of others. The fact that the government showed determination to impose the lockdown, in spite of the economic downturn. And the fact that people got scared and they obeyed.”

Some have become almost too scared, I venture.

Maybe so, he agrees. “I was talking to two people earlier – they came with their masks to sit here, and they said to me: ‘This is the first time we’ve come out!’.” Masks, he believes, are largely unnecessary outdoors, at least in the current situation – though in fact I did wonder if we’d be wearing them for the interview; after all we’re strangers sitting across a small table, busily emitting droplets at each other. “I know. But with this wind blowing, as you can see… If I was sneezing, yes, that would be dangerous.” He reckons we’re mostly safe in Cyprus, at least for now. “But I don’t want people to relax yet, because with the opening of the airports the situation may change.”

Surely it’s bound to, I say – and start pointing out the impossibility of checking incoming tourists with any degree of certainty, but he merely nods.

“It’s a necessary evil,” sighs Petros, laughing amiably. “It’s either that, or going bankrupt. I mean, the economy of the country needs an injection, and that can only come from the tourist industry.”

Looking back, almost all my questions seem to have been about the virus, as opposed to his life story. I suppose it’s inevitable, Covid being what it is – not just a burning issue, but also one where everyone’s desperate for answers and only a handful of people seem equipped to supply them – though it’s also because Petros himself is so laid-back; one tends to forget how much he’s done, or that he spent 43 years in the UK and became a world-renowned scientist (albeit in the study of hepatitis, not coronaviruses) before coming back in 2013. Would you say you’re a bit like a volcano, I ask, rumbling away on the inside behind a calm exterior? Petros laughs delightedly: “I am very easy-going. But if I explode – when I lose my temper, I am like a volcano! But it only happens once or twice a year.”

Was he very ambitious as a young man? He hesitates, gauging the question – and the answer is yes but ‘ambitious’ isn’t quite the right word, being a rather cold, calculating word. “I was always – um, I was always an optimistic person,” he offers at last. “I was always looking at the good side of things, I was never a moaner. Even in hard times, I never thought of giving up… With my wife, we started from zero, basically.”

He met his wife Maria in a roundabout way, through the city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia where both she and Petros’ parents – by that time refugees from Famagusta – were living in the late 70s; his mum made some dresses for Maria, and naturally introduced her to her son. She’d been a dressmaker in Famagusta, his dad had been a clerk in an export company. It doesn’t sound like a very wealthy family, even before the setback of the invasion – but that, I suppose, is Petros’ way, starting from zero and plugging away, taking on work in the same uncomplaining manner with which he now talks coronavirus and answers endless questions from the media. He and Maria have been married for 40 years, and raised three children – all of whom now live in Cyprus and, significantly, live in one sprawling house with their parents and the two grandchildren. Petros’ amiable style seems to extend to his family life.

Our beers arrive; he chats with the waitress, asking for a second small bowl so we can split up the peanuts. (There’s a virus out there.) His energy is helpful, relaxed, communicative. He’s casually dressed, but poses for photos without worrying about looking un-professorial. He loves teaching, he tells me – even now, after so many years as a researcher – the process of imparting information and “getting things across to students” (his lectures are also interactive, allowing them to interrupt and ask questions). It may just be a detail, but I’m even struck by the fact that his professional name is Peter Karayiannis, happy to dispense with the ‘Petros’ which could be hard to pronounce for non-Greeks. Even his non-work interests are expansive and outward-looking: he and Maria love to travel (but real travel, he says, where you experience a place and meet the locals; not just glorified shopping trips) and he’s also a keen philatelist, a hobby you don’t see very often these days, collecting stamps – sourced through Ebay and stamp exhibitions – from all over the world.

He has other hobbies too, including rod-and-line fishing and landscape gardening. “Everything you see here, I designed,” he says, waving an arm at the neat shrubs and little stone paths that adorn the area, including a mosaic devoted to St. Nicholas (patron saint of seafarers) topped by a small steeple. This was part of the plan when he came back from England, after 19 years at Imperial College (he’d worked at St. Mary’s Hospital, which became one of Imperial’s constituent hospitals in 1994) – to give something back to the motherland but also to become semi-retired, spend more time on hobbies. “Hepatitis is my topic,” explains Petros (though his training extends to all viruses). “That’s what made me well-known worldwide, that’s what made other doctors and scientists come to my lab in London and work with me”. He’s spoken at conferences, chaired meetings, even had a monthly medical show on London Greek Radio. “I’ve done all that. But there comes a point where you think ‘Now it’s time to slow down’.”

Unfortunately (though, I suspect, fortunately), it didn’t happen. The University of Nicosia Medical School has grown exponentially in the seven years since he arrived. He’s taken on more work, academically but also administratively, become Associate Dean, a member of the university senate, Co-Chair of the Department of Basic & Clinical Sciences – then of course came Covid, and the past three months of being in a never-ending spotlight.

“It doesn’t stop,” he confirms ruefully. “Journalists, radio stations, TV channels.” He’s on the news every evening, sometimes twice in one evening. The committee meet twice a week (there are about a dozen members, ranging from epidemiologists to intensive-care doctors), then you have the all-important meetings at the Presidential Palace – and he’s also been teaching throughout, albeit remotely. He kicks off at seven in the morning and often doesn’t finish till 11 at night. His wife keeps asking him to stop, or at least do less – and he must be exhausted, behind the avuncular manner, but I’m guessing it’s also quite exciting, a long and distinguished career capped by becoming a public figure and household name. All those years of expertise, labouring away in the (usually) obscure world of viruses, suddenly applied – in the most public way possible – to the task of protecting the nation from a brand-new ‘invisible enemy’, plunging us all into unprecedented lockdown with a few well-chosen words.

Speaking of which – what about that rather contentious topic? What if we’d somehow managed to shield the vulnerable groups? Could we have avoided the lockdown?

“Yes, we could have,” he replies candidly. “But we didn’t know very much about the virus – and I don’t think we were ready, from the hospital side of things.” Indeed, that’s putting it mildly. “In the end, of our 942 cases, about 200 were in health-care professionals. The first cases were in fact outbreaks within the hospitals – which forced the hospitals to close. If we’d had a major outbreak, we wouldn’t have been able to cope.” Given that about five per cent of Covid cases require hospitalisation, and given our lack of IC beds, intensivists and trained nurses… well, “we were very fortunate, let me put it that way”.

People on the beach once lockdown was eased

Hopefully, we know a little more now – at least when it comes to protecting ourselves. “What we’re all saying,” notes Petros with an edge in his voice, “is that we have to learn to live with the virus if it comes back. There’s no way we can enforce a shutdown again. It will be disastrous, not just for our own economy but the world economy in general”. It’s all very well to sit outdoors, drinking beer and eating peanuts (even from separate bowls) – but “people have relaxed too much,” they’re forgetting the virus altogether. “You should see the messages I get,” he adds with a rather grim laugh, messages from Facebook friends and anxious bystanders: “Come and see what’s happening at the Limassol seafront right now,” they write in alarm – or at the Limassol marina, or Finikoudes. One can only dread what might happen when tourists are added to the mix.

So what, in the end – speaking as an expert, one of the handful of people who can ease all this stressful uncertainty – is likely to happen? Will there be a ‘second wave’ in the autumn? Is he optimistic?

“I’d like to be,” he replies (he is, after all, a lifelong optimist). “But I’m not as relaxed about it as some others. I think if there is a second wave it might be worse, because we don’t have sufficient herd immunity.” Petros sighs: “I hope that the virus will change,” he says thoughtfully. “It was a new virus, it moved into a virgin population and spread very quickly. A lot of viruses, when they transmit from person to person, eventually they lose their pathogenicity, or their pathogenicity becomes milder.” This is not just wishful thinking; there’s already some evidence that Covid is becoming less lethal as it moves across the US, for instance. “I hope that this will be the case,” he opines, being as reassuring as he can be. There’s even a chance of a Sars-like scenario where the virus simply disappears, though he doesn’t seem terribly convinced about that.

How are we likely to look back on this weird historical moment? “I hope that mankind will not have to live through another pandemic,” he replies. “But I’m not so sure, because Man is invading the spaces where wild animals live, destroying their habitat”. For Petros Karayiannis himself, it’ll surely – and hopefully! – be the biggest crisis he’ll ever have to deal with, the peak of an already-impressive career, something to tell the grandkids when they get a little older. Before that can happen, though, it has to be over. “I’m looking forward to the day when I won’t have to do it,” he admits, speaking of the endless work and media attention. I leave him to call back the guy from Antenna, or perhaps field questions from concerned mask-wearing citizens; or maybe just to have another beer, who knows.



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