Four young scientists on their pandemic research

March 8, 2021

Wageningen University & Research celebrates its 103rd Dies Natalis on 9 March. Online this time, due to the global outbreak of COVID-19. The official celebration is preceded by a symposium organised by the Wageningen Graduate Schools. During this symposium, four young researchers cast a light on the Dies Natalis topic Pandemic Prevention, Prediction and Preparedness from the perspective of their expertise.

I really like the nitty-gritty details: what transmission route by what animal species is the most important in the spread, and what effect does vaccination have?
Bieneke Bron, Postdoc at Quantitative Veterinary Epidemiology
Bieneke Bron

Who? Bieneke Bron (35)
Postdoc at Quantitative Veterinary Epidemiology
the co-epidemiology and prevention of zoonoses spread by vectors, with Rift Valley fever as a case study

‘I have only worked in Wageningen for a few months now, but I have been studying zoonotic vector-borne diseases for almost ten years. These are diseases transferred from animals to humans through a vector, such as a tick, mosquito or flea. At WUR, I am working on gaining more knowledge on the Rift Valley fever virus. This virus is most prevalent in Africa and may cause significant deaths among farm animals. The virus is transferred by, among others, mosquitoes and is dangerous to humans. Because mosquitoes and farm animals also live in the Netherlands and the United States, it is not unlikely that the Rift Valley fever virus may emerge in other continents. There is a reason the disease features in the top ten diseases that urgently require further investigation, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

I work on the transfer mechanisms of pathogens; how does infection from animals to humans occur, how does a pathogen survive, and when does this lead to a major outbreak and when not? We study this using data-driven and theoretical models. We combine as much information and knowledge as possible from veterinary sciences, biology, ecology and virology. I really like the nitty-gritty details that we are now able to model: what transmission route by what animal species is the most important in the spread, and what effect does vaccination of humans or farm animals have?’

In addition to my research on Rift Valley fever, I am a part of the ERRAZE@WUR core team. I support Louise Fresco in her role as chair of the One Health-work group and one of the WHO – Europe committees. It would be wonderful if COVID-19 causes people, politicians particularly, to accept that our health rests on healthy animals and a healthy living environment. Everything is connected.’

Our method is just as sensitive as the tests that are currently in use, but it is cheaper and faster
Jurre Steens, PhD candidate with Microbiology
Jurre Steens

Who? Jurre Steens (26)
PhD candidate with Microbiology
: How CRISPR-Cas can contribute to rapid identification of COVID-19

‘About three years ago, some friends and I worked out a plan to apply the knowledge currently available within WUR in diagnostics. We did this, very traditionally, during drinks at Sports centre De Bongerd. CRISPR-Cas allows you to identify small amounts of genetic material, such as viruses or bacteria, in food samples or a plant crop. We shared this plan with John van der Oost, a pioneer in this technique, who granted me a PhD. We developed a type in his lab that showed whether a virus or bacteria was present in a sample through fluorescence.

At the start of the corona pandemic, we conducted a small pilot with a sample of SARS-CoV-2, mostly out of curiosity, to see whether this virus would set off the alarm. Our method worked with the same accuracy as the PCR tests that are currently being deployed. However, PCR testing is relatively costly because it requires complex equipment. It takes quite long, about one and a half hours, to produce results. Our technique yields results in 20 to 25 minutes with a 99-100 per cent accuracy.

Moreover, we need not work from central labs. This means our method is applicable for rapid testing at events, restaurants and concerts. We hope to be able to contribute to reopening the country. When may the technique be available for extensive use? This would take at least three months, which is quite an accomplishment in the world of science.’

COVID-19 causes alterations in the brain of some patients. This leads to an entirely new class of patients
Elbrich Postma, Postdoc with Human Nutrition and Health
Elbrich Postma

Who? Elbrich Postma (30)
Postdoc with Human Nutrition and Health
loss of taste and smell in (among others) corona patients

‘I have studied the loss of taste and smell in humans for years now, for example, as a result of a cold, the flu or chemotherapy. First as an undergraduate, then as a PhD student, and now as a postdoc. For my PhD research, we would take scans of the brain of patients suffering from a loss of taste or smell to discern whether the brain still responds to scents, even if they cannot consciously perceive the scent. The scans revealed that the brain still responds to odour, even if the patients smelled nothing. That is good news because it means the brain is still able to process a scent.

No sooner had I handed in my dissertation than the corona pandemic started. And pretty soon, it became apparent that the loss of taste and smell is an important indicator of an infection. Thanks to international cooperation, we were able to collect a huge amount of unique data on loss of taste and smell in patients from 63 countries. The analysis shows that it appears that virus particles nestle in the connection between the nasal and cerebral tissue. This may explain why patients retain these symptoms for so long and start smelling odd things as well. They may perceive coffee to smell like vinegar, for example. Their sense of taste is also affected, which we usually do not see in other patients. This leads to an entirely new group of patients.

For the patients themselves, the loss of taste and smell has a huge impact. They no longer enjoy their meals, are no longer able to smell their partner or favourite perfume. This may cause sadness or even depressions. Previously, their complaints were seldomly taken seriously, and they were often told to “learn to live with it”. Thanks to corona, this issue has now gained a lot of attention.’

Food aid is often accompanied by shame. COVID-19 may bring the subject into the open
Thirza Andriessen, PhD student with Consumption & Healthy Lifestyles and Rural Sociology
Thirza Andriessen

Wie? Thirza Andriessen (27)
PhD student with Consumption & Healthy Lifestyles and Rural Sociology
: the dignity of beneficiaries of food aid in Europe

‘An increasing number of people in Europe depend on food aid organisations. This number has risen as a result of the corona crisis. Many people have lost their job or income. Meanwhile, the crisis affects food aid organisations. They depend on volunteers that often fall within the age categories deemed high-risk. Donations are fewer as people spend their money differently.

My research focuses on the sense of dignity of the beneficiaries of food aid. Those who depend on food aid do not always appreciate the way in which the assistance is provided. If they have to queue for food or are unable to select products, they are confronted with their lower social status as the receiver of charity. Food aid organisations notice this and seek ways to offer their assistance in a more dignified manner. What defines dignity differs from person to person. It depends on factors such as age, cultural standards, freedom of choice, reciprocity. Some food aid organisations work with a supermarket model, where one can make one’s own selection. Others offer free meals where people can eat together with members of their neighbourhood.  In my research with three different food aid organisations in the Netherlands and Belgium, I try to provide insight into what works for what group.

I can imagine COVID-19 bringing food aid out into the open. The subject is surrounded by a sense of shame, while it is, in fact, a question of force majeure. It wouldn’t hurt to have more understanding from society and politics. Safeguarding the dignity and the right to food for each citizen is very important.’ 

About this series

Leading up to Wageningen University on 9 March, the keynote speakers shed their light on this year’s theme: ‘Pandemic Prevention, Prediction and Preparedness’. How do they contribute to (helping) prevent new pandemics?