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On covid, his private life, wishes and fame

Fast Confession - Former Health Minister Roman Prymula: People were climbing over my fence!

Karolína Lišková
21.Apr 2021
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9 minutes

Before the coronavirus pandemic, his name was known mainly to people in the field. Currently, however, there is perhaps no one in the Czech Republic who does not know him. He's a thorn in the side of many people, but the fact remains that Roman Prymula is an expert through and through, who was significantly involved in the fight against an unknown enemy in the first wave of the pandemic. Although he is no longer Minister of Health and we do not see him so often on television, he still has a lot to say about the coronavirus. In an interview for, the military doctor, scientist and politician talked not only about the virus, but also about his privacy.

Roman Prymula před Úřadem vlády.
Roman Prymula za pracovním stolem.
Prymula s premiérem Andrejem Babišem.

What is it like to spend every day at Prague Castle with a beautiful view?

It is definitely different from what I'd experienced prior. These are spaces that breathe history because of what had happened here. But I don't notice it that much if I'm there working.

Why aren't you working from home like most of the nation?

Work from home is a great thing, but with various contacts, when you need to deal with something operatively, it is better in spaces where you can occasionally receive visitors, because it is not possible at home at the moment.

How has your life changed during the coronavirus period? How would you compare it to the very beginning of the epidemic and now?

Life changed especially in relation to the period before covid, when one had a certain routine. If I compare it backwards, at the level of a university, for example, even if you are in the position of rector, there are ten times fewer problems than there are at the level of the director of a university hospital. You come to the ministry and there are ten times more problems. Then covid comes and you do nothing else. In this sense, life was hugely hectic, especially in the spring. Nowadays, in a way, it has somehow stabilized, it's no longer the case that something completely new is happening here every day, so basically it's already in a relatively stable mode for me.

Luxusní penthouse na Praze 1 - 226m
Luxusní penthouse na Praze 1 - 226m, Praha 1

You are an epidemiologist. Don't you feel bad because your work has definitely turned into pure politics? Don't you miss the things you were doing before?

Everyone must miss that. I haven't completely cut myself off from it, I try to publish two to three publications every year in renowned magazines with teams that make them by hand, so to speak. Even though I am no longer in the lab, I try to continue working with them. I don't think I would cut myself off from it completely. If I had to choose between politics and science, I would definitely choose science.

What will you write about this year?

We did a number of different tests to evaluate whether antigen tests have any merit, in what ways they are worse and better than PCR tests. Now the publication has been accepted into a fairly decent virology journal with a team of people around Dr. Green. I'm glad it worked out and I think there's still something to write about.

Before the coronavirus, no one had any idea what role hygiene played, that the field of epidemiology existed at all. Today, everyone is an epidemiologist. Until then, no one knew you. How has your life changed now that you are a public figure?

It is true that epidemiologists were generally somewhere on the margins of society, there weren't many and no one knew them. But I think I've been in the mass media world for several years. Whenever there was a problem, such as the German cucumbers (E.Coli, editor's note) or the Zika virus, it always "fell" on me and I struggled with it for two to three months before everyone stopped finding it entertaining and it disappeared. Of course, with covid it's completely different. The fact that one ended up on the screen for several hours a day totally shattered existing ideas.

People today perceive epidemiology differently and, unfortunately, these days everyone is an epidemiologist. I was even completely shocked by former President Klaus when he said that in cardiology one can be an expert, but basically not in epidemiology, because opinions vary in that field. That amused me. If I applied it to economics, it's exactly the same.

How do the people around you react? You've been in the media a lot. Do people recognize you on the street? Do they want to take pictures or do they curse you out?

This is something that is not entirely pleasant for me. I've completely lost my privacy. If it's like this for all the people who got into the public sphere, then there's really nothing to envy them. It was at its most intense sometime around April, when I couldn't go anywhere at all, because immediately there was a crowd of people with me, everyone wanted to take pictures. It's calmer now. After a while, of course, there were negative reactions, but I must say that there are relatively few. I've come across about three outright negative reactions on the street, otherwise it's mostly positive. People stop me, they want to take pictures. But it's not entirely pleasant when you go to the post office, for example, and before you manage to fill out a form, someone is saying hi to you.

I read somewhere that people even threatened you. Is that all over?

That is a different matter, that's a non-contact thing, because I have not encountered anyone explicitly threatening me with violence. But what circulated on the Internet was a huge bunch of different invectives, which all those who dealt with the pandemic at the government level had to face. I went through that too. There were about three cases that were assessed as threats and resolved in a criminal manner. I did not want to be dragged into it, but one case went through, including a sanction for the person in question.

So you found out who it was?

They informed me, but as I say, I wasn't very interested.

It's unbelievable what people are able to write.

You can deal with the writing, but it was over the line when they came to my house and tried to climb the fence. At that time, I had security, they were guarding the residence, and that is absolutely a burden for the family. It is very unpleasant.

How does your wife react to this, isn't she afraid?

At that moment, of course, there were concerns. The police arrived immediately and monitored the house at all times. But it is very unpleasant. When people start showing up at the homes of specific politicians, I think that's really over the line. If they want to express their opinion, let them do it in front of the ministry or the government, but to go to someone's house and harass their family and neighbours there, that's something I didn't understand.

Prime Minister Babiš tends to get into discussions with people. Have you had a similar experience?

I may be similar in this. I appeared on different TV shows, which were basically antagonistic, where I was being discouraged from going, because it's shows based purely on being in opposition. But I went almost everywhere without exception and had discussions with people. I was doing it, but today I wonder if it's worth it. You can't reach an agreement with some people and it's a huge waste of time. You spend a few hours a day discussing things, and it turns out it's not entirely fruitful, because some things really can't be explained.

Are you referring to the case when you were photographed in a restaurant in Vyšehrad?

Not at all, I mean discussions with determined opponents.

You said that the situation had calmed down relatively and life had settled into a routine. Do you have time to rest?

No, it flipped over into a different position. I got much more into the private sphere, and because the amount of work is increasing rather exponentially, I have already reached the stage when there is no time again. I'm looking forward to the time when one will be able to go on vacation, which didn't work out for a year and a half. I hope there will be some vacationing during the holidays.

Prodej rodinného domu, Praha 10 - 303m
Prodej rodinného domu, Praha 10 - 303m, Praha 10

If I were your wife, I'd probably scold you, it's taking a really long time…

She scolds me all the time (laughs).

When colleagues and the public throw you curveballs, I would ask myself if it's worth it. If I shouldn't retire early or go back to the lab... You know what I mean.

I'm a strange individual in this, because the more curveballs there are, the harder I try to fight them. It's probably not great in relation to the family, because I spent a lot of time all around the world abroad. One should probably settle down, but it hasn't come for me yet. I'm still rising up to the challenges that are around.

Your wife must be really very tolerant.

My wife is tolerant, although she often lays it out to me that she would rather I was at home more. But that is how it is.

I read that you have a lot of hobbies, be it submarines, chess, sci-fi movies... Did all this get pushed aside?

It can't be called hobbies. That was in the past, I use to read a lot, as a pupil and a student, I'd always read through the whole library. But that's completely gone, now when I read a professional publication, and it's a magazine rather than a book, that's all. I don't get to read books at all, and the fact that I would take interest in submarines is also gone. The only thing you can do today is play chess via the Internet, as evidenced by today's times. There is a worldwide network where people play against each other. They don't play against an AI, because it's not much fun today, it's like competing with a calculator. The power of chess programs is so great that it crushes you, no one enjoys it anymore. So people play together through the internet.

Many virologists say that viruses are beautiful, under a microscope. I read that you are fascinated by hepatitis.

It was at the very beginning of my career, it was such a curiosity when I was looking for a topic of my dissertation. Most of the topics had been taken, I chose viral hepatitis A. Everyone told me that I was crazy, that everything had been researched there, and what I wanted to find out. Paradoxically, shortly after I'd defended my dissertation, a vaccine appeared and suddenly it came back into the limelight. I have to say I've always been quite lucky, and I have to knock on wood.

Have you ever thought during your studies that something would come that would take humanity by surprise in this way? Was there talk of such a possibility?

Never. In essence, the considerations that were there, were especially concerns about various hemorrhagic fevers, Ebola, which comes from Africa. It has become apparent that a disease that can be significantly more severe, is theoretically much more manageable than what happened with SARS-CoV-2. When you imagine it, a year and a half ago, there was theoretically one single virus that mutated in the beginning, and that virus basically pushed itself through the whole globe. This is something that is completely unimaginable in terms of scope. It turns out that not being so serious on the one hand and extremely serious on the other is a huge problem because we can't diagnose and treat it well. It's basically decimating the population of the entire globe and we have not won yet.

How much longer do you think we will have to deal with it?

I don't think this virus will go away, it will be here with us for many years to come. But I believe that we will be in a position where there will no longer be massive epidemics here, but it will be an infectious disease like any other and it will be an infectious disease against which there will be a vaccine. So most people will be vaccinated, and if it will be like that, I don't think there's going to be a risk of any big percentage of mutations.

We are now in a situation where the virus is multiplying at an enormous rate, and this is a classic example of why you cull entire flocks during bird flu outbreaks. We are afraid that the virus will mutate and that bird flu will become a flu that people will contract and that will have such a high mortality rate. Of course, we cannot do that in this case, here the virus is multiplying in the human population. But the more it multiplies, the greater the risk of various mutations, and we are, of course, afraid of that, because if a mutation comes in that is more serious in its course and, in particular, resistant to the current vaccine, we would have to prepare completely new vaccines.

Which vaccine do you prefer? Or you'll get injected with whatever's available?

The vaccines are comparable in quality. I have already been vaccinated with Pfizer-BioNTech.

If it is possible to travel in the summer, where will you go?

After a long time, I would like to go somewhere by the sea, for the heat. Sit somewhere on the shores of the sparkling ocean. After x months of being locked up in here. I had the worst feeling in a situation when practically everything had closed down in the first wave and I was leaving the ministry at about half past twelve at night. I had already sent the driver home, I wanted to walk through night Prague. I went all the way to Senovážné Square and I didn't meet a single person that night. One then gets depressive thoughts about what is really going on, if life on Earth had ended, that no one else is here. You don't want that at all, so I hope that we can get back to a situation when we can meet normally and not have to deal with being infected.

It can't come soon enough, thank you for the interview.

Fast confession:

What did you want to be when you grew up when you were little?

A submarine captain.

You have a lot of honours, which one is the most valuable to you?

Certainly the Order of the White Lion is an order of magnitude different from the others.

How would you describe yourself in one sentence?

A workaholic trying to find logical conclusions.

Which doctor do you really not like to go to?

All of them.

What was the last nice thing you did for your wife?

It's complicated. There really wasn't much of anything lately, so sometimes it's just moments when I come home from Prague and we have time to talk about something.

Who do you think would be the best Minister of Health for the Czech Republic?

This is very complicated. Probably a genie out of a lamp.

What is your current nightmare?

Mutations that are on the horizon.

If you could choose, which car would you buy?

A Porsche.

What is your lifelong dream that you would like to fulfil, but haven't had the opportunity to do so yet?

It has to do with my childhood - riding in a submarine, but a real one, not the little one.

What did the coronavirus give you and what did it take?

It gave me new friends and took some from me.

Who disappointed you during covid?

Surprisingly, some colleagues - professors, doctors, who presented opinions that boggled the mind.

When was the last time you were happy and why?

When I published an article in Lancet years ago and got to the front page, it is a certain point of pride for scientists.

Where in the world have you felt the best?

I have travelled through many countries, but I think I feel best in the Czech Republic.

Who would you challenge to a chess match?

If I could challenge anyone in history, it would be Michael Tao.
Question by the interviewee to the editor:

Did I answer correctly?

You answered fantastically.
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