Interview with Professor Jonathan Heeney

Professor Jonathan Heeney’s early career ambitions were hijacked by two medical misfortunes. A season as a ski instructor, to which the call of the mountains had driven him despite his father’s concerns that he might never return to take up his place at university, came to an abrupt end when he collided with a frozen tree and badly damaged his leg.

Then, back at university, and about to qualify as a vet, chronic allergies forced him to concede that a further change of career plan might be required.

“In my final year of vet school I got involved in a project looking at cancer in cattle. Someone had discovered that if you ground up the tumour to make it into a vaccine and then administered it into the back leg, the eye cancer disappeared. That fascinated me, and I became interested in vaccines, and stayed on to receive a second doctoral degree in pathology.”

Moving from his native Canada to the USA’s National Institute of Health to conduct his PhD research, Jonathan found himself studying an outbreak of disease that had devastated a captive colony of cheetahs. The disease turned out to be caused by coronavirus, a virus which has since recurred with increasing urgency throughout his career.

Positions at Stanford School of Medicine and Leiden University followed (“I was very keen to move to Europe to pursue my love of skiing – and ended up in the Netherlands, the flattest country in the continent”), where Jonathan’s interest in the transfer of infections from animals to humans led to his investigation into the origins of the AIDS virus.

“AIDS was a stealth pandemic. It spreads quietly and doesn’t cause early disease or kill you straight away – it takes many years for people to develop symptoms, which made it very difficult to control when the epidemic began.”

Lured to Cambridge in 2003 by a sabbatical, Jonathan became Professor of Comparative Pathology and now runs the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics. As a Fellow at Darwin, he has served as Vice-Master, and organised the 2014 Lecture Series focused on “Plagues”.

“Two weeks and two days after the end of the Darwin Plagues series, the world’s biggest ever Ebola outbreak began. I went to Guinea, right where the epidemic had started. Because there were so many cases and it was clear that not everyone would die, I wrote an article for Nature about human reservoirs – infections that stayed present in survivors. Everyone said I was mad, but seven years later new cases emerged which proved my hypothesis correct.”

Having closely studied the SARS outbreak in 2002-3 (“We got lucky because it wasn’t as contagious as it could have been, and the infection dynamics meant that we could control it by quarantine”), and MERS, which spread from bats to camels to people, the emergence of Covid-19 felt grimly predictable.

“Covid also arose in a live animal market, which we should have banned a long time ago. It was a really nasty virus this time, and very adept at moving between people before they developed symptoms.”

Already set up with the necessary facilities, Jonathan retooled his lab and began collecting blood samples from local hospitals to study the new virus.

“There were great collaborations with local hospitals and with LMB (the Laboratory of Molecular Biology) and the Department of Pathology. We were part of three or four networks created very early in the pandemic.”

Jonathan’s lab is now working to develop vaccines which protect, not just against Covid-19, but against all related coronaviruses. In his Erasmus lecture he will explore both how this most recent pandemic arose, and how we can prevent the emergence of another.

“The next pandemic will surprise us, because we’ll be focused on something else,” he says. “Globalisation, the expansion of the global population, interactions between humans and animals and climate change all add to the recipe to make another pandemic more likely sooner rather than later.”


Professor Heeney will give the Erasmus Seminar, Preventing the next Pandemic, at 6pm on Wednesday, 8th February, in the Bradfield Room. Book here if you plan to attend.