Matti Sällberg: “Vital to contribute facts to the debate”

During the course of the pandemic, he has appeared on an almost daily basis in the morning papers or on the TV news. Matti Sällberg fast became an expert the media called for help explaining everything from vaccine development to the spread of infection.

“Since my colleague Ali Mirazimi and I said that we were working on a Covid-19 vaccine, the media has not stopped calling,” says Sällberg, professor of biomedical analysis at KI in Flemingsberg.
But he takes the constant calls in his stride. Even on those occasions when he is recognized by fellow passengers on the commuter train.
“Some people of course just come up to you or wave from a distance. It’s not a problem, people are usually nice.”
Sällberg works at ANA Futura on Campus Flemingsberg. Some 300 researchers work here in a variety of areas in an environment that combines advanced equipment and training labs. Karolinska University Hospital is next door.

Swedish vaccine underway
The development of corona vaccines have generally often been thought of as extremely rapid. But this speed is explained by the many years of work that have already been put in.
“We continued to invest money in basic research after the SARS outbreak in 2003-2004, something we can be very happy about today.”
The development of the Swedish Covid-19 vaccine is being conducted in close collaboration with the infection clinic at Karolinska University Hospital. But it differs from other vaccines that have been developed.
“We’re like snails or tortoises if you compare us to other vaccine developers. We have a different approach with the goal of achieving broader immunity than existing vaccines. And our approach may be very important, given the emergence of mutations,” he says.
A phase I study is planned for the summer of 2021 and a Swedish vaccine may be ready at some point in 2022-2023.

Fairly complicated training
Sällberg’s interest in research was triggered during his training as a lab assistant. In 1998, he started a dental course and continued to conduct research in parallel with his studies.
“I chose dentistry because it involves fairly complicated medical training. You take a good basic course and it includes some medical craftsmanship, which suits me as I’m quite handy.”
As a graduate dentist, he continued to split his time between the clinic and the lab. When he was appointed the country’s first professor of biomedical analysis in 2000, he hung up his dental tongs to become a full-time academic.
Curiosity drives him forward, he says.
“Research represents an exciting personal challenge where you’re constantly trying to solve problems and are forced to try different approaches.”
He inherited his curiosity from his parents. Sällberg’s mother is a trained journalist and translator who, despite her 97 years, still writes a lot. His father was an engineer.
“But we have no researchers in the family. My sister is a vet, but that’s the only medical connection.”
During his training as a dentist, he met his wife Margaret Sällberg Chen, also a professor at KI.
“We talk surprisingly little about research at home. And that’s pretty nice. As a researcher, however, the job is on your mind all the time, it’s difficult to turn off. Despite that, I don’t work more than anyone else.”

An ability to explain things clearly
The media likes to contact him for his comments not only because of his extensive knowledge, but also because he has always found it easy to explain things that other people find difficult.
“It’s something I have practiced for a long time because I like to teach and to do that, you have to be able to explain things in different ways.”
“You need one way of explaining things at scientific conferences, and a completely different one for new students. At the same time, the questions asked can be equally searching in either setting,” he says.
He rejects the suggestion that he has become some sort of research celebrity.
“Just wait until this is over, I’ll be forgotten again. Having said that, researchers have an enormous amount to contribute, so I hope we’ll retain some visibility even after the pandemic.”
The most important thing researchers can contribute is facts in public debate. Sometimes debate loses its way, he says, especially with statements from the so-called anti-vaxxer movement, which campaigns against all use of vaccines.
“So, it’s vital to present facts in response. You must always let people make their own judgments. But judgments should be based on facts, not on hocus pocus.”
Sometimes, the research debate can be difficult to grasp when experts disagree on apparently similar things. This became especially obvious during the pandemic when the tone between opposing opinions was occasionally harsh.
“In the world we live in, it’s completely normal to think differently, and then have quite a shrill tone because we think in a certain way. The public does not always understand that we may have different views. But this is the freedom of research, having different opinions based on the same facts. And it’s a debate we must have in an open democratic society,” says Sällberg.

Happy to appear in media
Sällberg has appeared in everything from major news programmes to children’s news shows, and has appeared in a number of different podcasts. He does not share the doubts that others may have about the risk of being misquoted or edited.
“A couple of weeks ago, I was asked about the delays to vaccine production and I replied that it was like everything in life: shit happens. Then came the headlines: ‘Vaccine expert says shit happens’,” he says and laughs.
“That wasn’t the message I wanted to get across – but so what?! It’s not my job to write headlines. And headlines are meant to get more people to read an article, and if that works, then fine.”
Despite the fact that he has sometimes had to communicate involuntary messaging, he has been well treated by both the media and colleagues.
“On the other hand, I’ve heard that I have to think about the language I use. When you’re a professor, there are certain expressions you should avoid. And I understand that, but at the same time you are who you are.”

Text: Magnus Trogen Pahlén. Photo: Erik Flyg.

Published On: 12 September 2022
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