"I think this is probably one of the phases that will go down in history maybe as a renaissance," LCSB director Rudi Balling, pictured, says
Photo: Luxembourg Centre for System Biomedicine
Rudi Balling, director of the Luxembourg Centre of Systems Biomedicine at the University of Luxembourg, spoke to Delano about the groundbreaking research emerging from the devastation of covid-19 and why international cooperation is critical.
Jess Bauldry: I imagine coronavirus and covid-19 is quite a big part of your work right now?
Dr Rudi Balling: I would say 110%. Everything. We are trying to maintain a working routine for the LCSB as an interdisciplinary research centre.
JB: How do you do that without going to the facility in Belval?
RB: About a third of our activities, if not a little bit more, are in experimental science. We’ve experiments in the lab with cells and cell culture and biochemistry, all those where you really physically have to be there--we don’t do anymore. And another third is computational biology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, data, manage data science management, modelling, trajectories and so on. That has almost taken over 80-90% of our activities.
JB: How can your researchers can help?
RB: We are a research centre not a clinical development centre. We don’t have a mandate to treat, but we are in a way a knowledge centre to provide clinical decision s upport. If the good doctors ask questions, for example, the majority of patients that die are older than 70, even 80. Many of them have diseases, like diabetes is the number one, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease or cancer or are in treatment of cancer. They are taking drugs. So does this treatment effect the virus positively or negatively? Right now, we don’t know. But we now need to start watching, getting the electronic health records and recording what kind of drugs they are on. But the researchers can then take that data and as soon as they see something, they can feed it back to the doctors and say, maybe you want to switch to another hypertensive drug. This is extremely important because there’s so much bullshit on the internet. Scientists now spend more time in putting out those fires of just rubbish. It’s dangerous. We see that lots of drugs that are second use are now the new toilet paper. People read something, they rush after them and buy all the stock in a pharmacy and then when somebody really needs it, it’s gone.
JB: Do you expect to see more money channelled into related research?
RB: On day one, I made all our reserves in LCSB available and said, “anybody who has a good idea of what we can do in the next four weeks, I will give all the money that we had as reserve for the year.” We always keep some reserve in case big instruments break down or some major discoveries are made and we need to focus more attention on that.
JB So we can expect some interesting projects coming out of this then in the next month?
RB: An amazing amount of work. I think this is probably one of the phases that will go down in history maybe as a renaissance. I’m not a historian, but I’m very interested in what happened before and after the Renaissance. You know, the plague wiped out major part of Europe. Suddenly it changed the complete science structure. I think we will see something like that. We already see it--the creativity to solve problems now, in four weeks, and not in four years. It’s astounding!
JB: The WHO says around 20 vaccines are being developed and it was reported that the US approached German firm CureVac to do its research and production. What do you think of this vaccine race?
RB: I think Trump is not a good president, to say the least. This is not only stupid, it’s giving such a bad role model. What we need in times of crisis is role models and leadership. And I think one could have predicted that it wouldn’t work, because any vaccine development today, most of it, is an international effort. Because most vaccines are specialised for the ethnic sub population. In the last 20 years, we have a mixture in our country, we are extremely international. If you want to really design a vaccine that works on “all populations”, then you need to compare with different countries to have sequence information back. First the clinical trials take quite some time and then you need to scale up. The US might think they can do everything alone. But at the same time, the quickest way to respond is an international effort.
JB: How likely do you think it is that pandemics like this will recur in future?
RB: I think we will see pandemics as long as we travel as much as we do. This is an issue of mobility, which affects the transmission frequency and a major part is also the way we live, the density of the population. We are killing the habitats of these animals. They are products in the markets. So, they may come back over and over and over.
Will covid-19 recur? There’s a high chance. We don't know. There are currently I would say two experiments going on, unwanted, in a way. It’s a Chinese one, the UK one and maybe the European one. If you detect the infection very early and you completely wipe it out, you have a good chance that it’s gone. But you see, even with Ebola that it flickers back. Early stage containment, isolation, tracing, which is now easier for people who use smartphones, that’s possible. Once it’s out en masse, the genie is out of the bottle, as we have now, I don’t think it can be contained.
JB: You don’t think it can be contained?
RB: I think it will come back to a certain degree over and over. We don’t know whether it's yearly or two times a year, or every two or three or four years. We don’t know. I'm not so much worried about recurrence because by that time, we will probably have a vaccine.
I think the biggest biggest challenge now is what's called flattening the curve, to distribute the people that are so sick, they need to go on an emergency bed and distribute it in the course of the year and not all rolling over in a big way. I think it’s coming back but probably we will be better prepared.
JB: Some sources suggest self-isolation will continue for three months. Do you think it could extend beyond that period?
This is a this is a very difficult question. I do think this is much longer than two weeks. I expect we will be dealing with this in emergency mode till the end of the year the least.
That doesn't mean that we necessarily need to maintain this strong social distancing. I cannot tell you now, how long that is necessary. Right now, it is extremely important and it’s a tragedy that people do not obey the social distancing.