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Pandemic Preparedness In the Battle Against Viruses

During the Corona pandemic, experts from Helmholtz Munich helped to bring the situation under control as quickly as possible. Now they are preparing for the possibility of another pandemic: with new high-tech equipment and closely interlinked research strategies.

During the Corona pandemic, experts from Helmholtz Munich helped to bring the situation under control as quickly as possible. Now they are preparing for the possibility of another pandemic: with new high-tech equipment and closely interlinked research strategies.

When the first news of the pandemic made the rounds, Prof. Ulrike Protzer pulled on her protective suit and FFP3 mask: she herself wanted to actively contribute her viral expertise from the very first second in order to get SARS-CoV2 under control. The virologist is trained to work in a high-security lab. "In the past, I've grown many different strains of viruses myself," she recalls. But the virologist had no idea that she would one day have to use her skills in a pandemic.

Helmholtz Munich successfully participated in the global fight against Corona - thanks to its outstanding infrastructure, but above all thanks to the experienced researchers from virology, environmental medicine, data science, pulmonary medicine and many other fields, who made important contributions with their know-how acquired over many years.

Now that the pandemic phase is over, Ulrike Protzer is more often on a construction site: On the Helmholtz Munich campus, a laboratory is currently being upgraded to "Biosafety Level 3". The abbreviation stands for safety level three, the second-highest for biomedical laboratories. "So far, we have been able to work mainly with pathogens that are transmitted via the blood, but now we are also optimally equipped for respiratory viruses," says Protzer. The new lab will be state-of-the-art: "We can use it to perform detection methods for all airborne pathogens and even set up preclinical models for drug development."

Ready for an Emergency

This is part of the preparation that is currently in full swing at Helmholtz Munich: "Perform - React" is the name of the Pandemic Preparedness project. Its goal is to be already in the starting blocks when a new pandemic threatens at some point. It therefor uses existing research infrastructures. "We have seen how much we can contribute at Helmholtz Munich. We need people who know how to handle viruses safely, and we need close exchange with allergy and lung research and other disciplines. Only this interaction has enabled us to investigate how the severe lung and tissue damage caused by Corona actually occurs," explains Ulrike Protzer. Interdisciplinary cooperation was one of the recipes for success in the Corona pandemic. And it is precisely this exchange that is now being pursued in an even more targeted manner in the "CoViPa" project on virus pathogenesis: Experts regularly exchange information on the latest findings and networking opportunities.

Interdisciplinary Commitment as a Success Factor

Because Corona has also demonstrated, that combating a pandemic also requires scientists from disciplines that seem thematically far away when you first think about them. Prof. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann is familiar with this: the environmental physician usually conducts research on air pollutants, allergies and how environmental influences make people ill or how a healthy environment keeps people healthy. And suddenly she was closely involved in the studies on Corona. "I had been looking at how environmental factors affect the transmissibility of a virus before," she says - and that question took on a whole new meaning in the context of Corona. "Pandemic preparedness means, above all, prevention - and that's exactly the primary task for us in environmental medicine."

High-Tech Equipment To Be Prepared for the Worst-Case Scenario

Another step toward pandemic preparedness at Helmholtz Munich is structural support: state-of-the-art equipment and laboratory facilities are being purchased to "have a pipeline standing," as Traidl-Hoffmann puts it. She herself, who conducts research at the Augsburg site, is in charge of the Coraero project, which is investigating the spread of aerosols, but also their possible deactivation. "For example, we now have measuring devices with which we can sample air in patient rooms at the hospital and actually detect individual virus particles," says Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann. In addition, there are so-called high-throughput robots that enable the examination of hundreds or even thousands of samples in the laboratory within a very short time. These devices are part of the biomarker pipeline. "The analyses of biosamples from the Corona pandemic have enabled us to identify biomarkers that predict severe disease progression on the first day of established infection." The goal now is to further develop these predictive models and have them on hand for a potential next pandemic. Severe cases can then be placed directly into intensified treatment. "That's pandemic preparedness, too," says Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann: "Early detection, predictions and risk assessment at the personal level."

Researching Pathogens With Certainty

It's as big an undertaking as the new high-security lab at the Helmholtz Munich campus, where virologist Ulrike Protzer and her team will also be working. The lab is equipped with all the technical refinements: Standard equipment includes an air-sealed entrance airlock, rooms with negative pressure, special work tables, highly efficient ventilation and filter systems, a heat inactivation system and a sophisticated safety concept to prevent pathogens from escaping the lab. The goal is the same for all of these high-tech devices: The better and more thoroughly a possible new pathogen can be studied, the faster starting points for treatment can be found and the faster new treatment approaches can be tested at Helmholtz Munich.

Findings for the Next Pandemic

As unpredictable as a new pandemic is, some key points are already certain. "Pandemics typically originate from pathogens that the human immune system has not seen before," explains virologist Protzer. "And it's also clear that they are airborne, like SARS-CoV-2, because otherwise they can't spread across the world as quickly." The potentially pandemic pathogens also have in common that they trigger immunopathology, which is a dysfunction of the immune system. "This almost always affects the lungs, causing pneumonia and lung failure. Often, other organs are also affected: the brain, the nerves, even the heart," says Protzer. The goal of the research is to find out the mechanisms that take place in the body: Why can pathogens permanently take hold in the brain? Why do they succeed so successfully in damaging the lungs and heart? "To answer these research questions, we virologists are closely cooperating with other colleagues at Helmholtz Munich. It takes a lot of high-tech, from imaging techniques and data analysis to sequencing and protein analysis methods at the single-cell level," Protzer says. These methods are needed to understand why an unknown pathogen is so destructive in the human body. "And only when we understand that and know the pathomechanism, we can find starting points for therapy."

The Pill in Hand

That's exactly what pandemic preparedness involves: studying now what exactly coronaviruses can do - or influenza and flaviviruses. All these groups of pathogens are considered possible initiators of the next pandemic. The goal is clear, says Ulrike Protzer: "We would like to already have the pill in our hands when the next virus comes - that would be our dream."

The Scientists

Prof. Dr. Ulrike Protzer

Deputy Head of the Molecular Targets and Therapeutics Center, Director Virology View profile
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Prof. Dr. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann

Director of the Institute of Environmental Medicine View profile

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