Rector on Dies Natalis: 'WUR has the expertise needed to tackle a pandemic'

February 26, 2021

The 103rd Dies Natalis is to take place on 9 March. Online, this time, due to the global outbreak of COVID-19. Wageningen University & Research is also affected by the pandemic and is working on preventing future outbreaks in different ways. Experts discuss this topic with, among others, Marion Koopmans (Erasmus MC) and Henk Bekendam (formerly WHO) on 9 March during the celebration entitled Pandemic Prevention, Prediction and Preparedness. Rector Magnificus Arthur Mol sheds light on the choice for this topic and looks ahead at a Dies Natalis celebration that is far from traditional.

Could this years' Dies Natalis have centred on a different issue?

'It certainly could have. The last thing we want is to have the umpteenth discussion on COVID-19. However, as an organisation, we cannot ignore an issue so closely related to our expertise on the relationships between humans and animals, zoonoses (viruses that can be transmitted from animals to humans, ed.), and how our living conditions contribute to the outbreak and spread of the virus. Thus, we have elected to look towards the future. We never want to be caught off-guard by a pandemic as we now were. WUR can offer a valuable contribution to avoiding this in the future.'

The COVID-19 pandemic is a real wake up call for WUR also

WUR preventing a pandemic, rather ambitious, is it not?.


'Indeed. And I am not saying WUR can do this alone. But we have a unique capability to integrate different knowledge domains. After all, you don't just want to know all the details of the virus, but also how the virus develops and how we humans influence the start, spread and mitigation of an outbreak and our society's resilience. This has everything to do with how we keep animals, how close together we live, and how healthily or unhealthily we live. In the extensive ERRAZE@WUR research programme that was recently launched, we intend to learn from the current pandemic and be better prepared for the next one.'

If WUR has all this expertise, why didn't our researchers see the COVID-19 outbreak coming?

'Virologist, including those at WUR, have been warning about a pandemic for years. Still, COVID-19 caught us all by surprise, particularly the scope of the spread. At the start, we expected the virus to remain in China, as the west had remained largely unaffected by previous outbreaks of SARS and Ebola. However, COVID-19 is of a different calibre. Have we been naive? Possibly, although no one could have predicted our 21st-century society would grind to a halt due to a virus. In this sense, the pandemic is a true wake up call, for WUR also.'

The idea of preventing the next pandemic sounds hopeful, but is it realistic?

'Preventing it altogether may be difficult because the growing world population has people and animals living closer together, and with it, the chances of viruses being transmitted increase. Globalisation leads to the rapid spreading of disease. But how an outbreak is approached is something we can influence. A next virus must be detected and isolated as rapidly as possible, and preventative (health) measures put in place. If these fail, it is essential to combat the virus effectively with a vaccine and suitable health treatments. The latter falls, of course, more within the domain of the academic medical centres, with which WUR collaborates intensively within the Netherlands Center for One Health (NCOH). With ERRAZE@WUR, we hope to establish a roadmap that can aid policymakers in a future outbreak.'

Our integrated knowledge of humans, animals and environment is unique

Regardless of how well-prepared the Netherlands is, if a virus outbreak starts elsewhere, such as in China this time, we are at a disadvantage.

'Yes, and it is precisely for this reason that I feel WUR should seek international collaboration at a scientific level as much as possible. And we do. With China as well. To prevent a global pandemic, you simply need each other and must learn from each other. When China locked down all public life in Wuhan at the start of 2020, it surprised everyone. But, looking back, this may have been a wise decision. Eventually, countries in the west took similar steps. We must move towards a system of linking global research on this issue, monitoring infections and sharing expertise through an international communications network. Collaboration fosters trust. This allows us to signal and address issues sooner. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has worked hard to combat COVID-19, but direct scientific contacts are often faster.'

Are you petitioning for an international science network?

'Precisely. This corona epidemic demonstrates how essential the role of scientists is. Having so many scientists present at daily talk shows was unthinkable a few years ago. The most striking thing to me is that the general public and journalists accept that scientists are not all-knowing. Before COVID-19, that was different: if a professor said he was unsure of precisely by how many degrees the earth would heat up, he would be deemed untrustworthy.'

The Dies Natalis is an excellent opportunity to celebrate the acknowledgement of science. But how does one show that pride through a screen?

'I intend to mention it in my address, and we have a programme that underscores the value of WUR's work in the field of virus outbreaks. Wim van der Poel will discuss the interaction between humans and animals, and Emely de Vet explains how an unhealthy lifestyle makes us vulnerable in a pandemic. But, in all honesty, an online event does not give the same feeling as a traditional Dies Natalis. There is no academic procession, nor is there the contact of 700 peers, the audience's reactions and the conversations before and after the event.'

Is an online Dies Natalis worth the effort?

'Of course! After a year of remote education and countless virtual meetings, we will succeed in celebrating the Dies Natalis online. We gave the form much thought. Instead of keynotes for a large audience, we have elected to have a round table discussion moderated by Marcia Luyten (of the programme Buitenhof), with our experts and external guests Marion Koopmans and Henk Bekedam, and two young researchers. And, the best thing is: everyone across the globe can attend this extraordinary celebration.'

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?