Dirk Heinz: "The great strengths of the HZI are its solidarity and team spirit"

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the HZI quickly moved into the public spotlight. Scientific Director Prof Dirk Heinz talks about one year of pandemic, the fast establishment of corona research and new challenges.

Professor Heinz, how do you remember the beginning of the pandemic?
I remember the last major face-to-face meeting in mid-March 2020 in Berlin very well: a kick-off meeting for the foundation of our new Helmholtz Institute in Greifswald. Even then, everything revolved around corona and the importance of infections caused by pathogens originating from animals. And shortly afterwards, the first meeting of the crisis unit took place at the HZI. We further developed the pandemic plan and took special measures to protect the staff, from increased hygiene measures to flexible home office solutions.

Looking back, how do you evaluate the year 2020 for the HZI?
It was a most unusual, exhausting and unique year in every respect. The COVID 19 pandemic, as you can see, has had far-reaching consequences on the way we work, but also on our private lives. For the HZI, its special role and responsibility in combating the pandemic became clear very quickly. This is also a great opportunity for our centre!

How was the HZI able to adapt so promptly to corona research?
In terms of research, the pandemic fortunately did not catch the HZI completely unprepared, although corona viruses had not been in our focus before. We were able to quickly bundle our competencies for research on SARS-CoV-2 and access appropriate infrastructures such as S3 laboratories. Within a very short time, more than 70 projects were established thanks to successful acquisition of third-party funding. We have benefited greatly from our priorities in research, the so-called "research foci". It is remarkable how quickly our scientists have taken the initiative. I am also very proud of our experts, who immediately took on the important task of knowledge transfer - for example, in interviews, talk shows and background discussions - and support policy-makers in their difficult decision-making processes. 

What are the HZI's most important scientific contributions to the fight against the pandemic?
Our scientists have, for example, developed computer-aided approaches that make it possible to model the course of the infection or that will relieve the health authorities of the burden of tracking cases and contacts in the future. In addition, epidemiological studies on the pandemic and numerous innovative research projects are underway to gain a deeper understanding of the infection process and develop solutions to combat the virus.

Has the public's perception of the HZI changed?
We are all pleased that the level of awareness of the HZI has increased by leaps and bounds due to the media presence of our researchers during the corona crisis. As a feedback loop, we also notice this quite clearly in the enormous increase in third-party funding. It is outstanding what the HZI staff have achieved in a very short time. This of course includes Press and Communication, but also Administration and Technical Operations, who have been very supportive of the research efforts despite numerous restrictions and have thus contributed significantly to the success. Therefore, I would also like to express a very big compliment and many thanks to all of them at this point. The past year was certainly not an easy one, but the commitment and dedication have paid off. In my opinion, the HZI has never been in such a good position in its history as it is today.

So what happens next in 2021?
Many of our scientists remember the quite strenuous scientific and strategic reviews in 2018 and 2019, and the HZI scored outstandingly well both times. The year 2021 is a milestone in that it also marks the start of the Helmholtz Association's fourth period of programme-oriented funding. We have set ourselves ambitious goals for the next seven years in order to do even better justice to our translational mission. The concept must be adapted again against the backdrop of the corona pandemic, also because the pressure of expectations on the HZI from politics and society has grown significantly. We cannot and must not close our minds to this. We benefit from our flexible programme structure, which allows us to excellently integrate current topics such as respiratory infections into the overall strategy of the HZI. On the other hand, we can use our newly acquired Helmholtz Institute in Greifswald as well as the gratifying additional funding for our already existing Helmholtz Institute in Saarbrücken (HIPS) to do research on the topic of "Emerging Infections" with the necessary critical mass. Finally, some important new recruitments are planned for all sites.

What does this mean in detail for the sites?
At the new HZI site in Greifswald, we want to strengthen the "One Health" approach. This involves the epidemiology, pathogenesis and pathogen-host interactions of primarily zoonotic infections. As cooperation partners, we will work on site with the University of Greifswald, the University Medical Centre Greifswald and the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut (Federal Research Institute for Animal Health). By the end of this year, the international review of the scientific concept and the foundation of the new institute will take place. At HIPS, the aim is to expand pharmaceutical research and add antiviral strategies. Substantial funds have been made permanently available for this expansion via the federal budget committee at the end of 2020. At HIRI in Würzburg, we will focus on investigating infection mechanisms at the single cell level in the coming years. RNA-based methods will be used to shed light on various host reactions in infections in order to understand their effects on the course of the disease and to intervene in a targeted manner.

Are there other key topics at the HZI?
An important topic in the Helmholtz Association is strengthening knowledge and technology transfer. We need to increase our efforts in this area in the coming years. This includes the establishment of successful innovation management. The topic of internationalisation must also be advanced. We are already in the process of establishing successful cooperations, for example with McGill University in Montreal. I am convinced that the corona crisis will contribute to strengthening infection research worldwide. Great opportunities also await us here. The key for the HZI will be to position itself optimally and to make good offers in order to be one of the guaranteed candidates for financial growth.

What is your wish - or your forecast - for 2021?
We certainly all wish that the COVID-19 pandemic will finally be overcome. But this means there are still exhausting months ahead. The vaccines now available will bring a significant improvement, while contact restrictions alone can at best lead to a stagnation in the number of cases, especially in the light of new mutations. Both patience and solidarity of all will continue to be called upon. For the HZI, I hope that after the review marathon, the financial consolidation, which was also successfully managed, and the restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, we will soon be able to focus again on our core topic, translational infection research, with all its opportunities. This should spur us all on not to let up. The great strengths of the HZI are its solidarity and team spirit, which is more important than ever in pandemic times - we should and can build on this for a good future.

Author: Susanne Thiele

Published: March 2021

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