2020-05-25

With antibody tests and new active substances against SARS-CoV-2

Federal Minister of Education and Research Anja Karliczek and Lower Saxony’s Minister for Science and Culture Björn Thümler learn more about the current research on COVID-19 at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research

Federal Minister of Education and Research Karliczek and Lower Saxony’s Minister for Science and Culture Thümler were guests at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig today. The scientists at the HZI provided them with an overview of the current state of research on COVID-19, in particular a new nationwide epidemiological antibody study.

_MG_3606_590x240px.jpgFederal Minister of Education and Research Anja Karliczek and Lower Saxony’s Minister for Science and Culture Björn Thümler with researchers of the HZI. © HZI / Verena MeierFederal Minister of Education and Research Karliczek explains: “Research is the key to fighting the coronavirus. One can see that this is true in many different ways when looking at the various studies that have been recently launched at the HZI in Braunschweig with regard to COVID-19. As an infection research centre, the HZI is making a significant contribution to research into the coronavirus. The research at the HZI is the foundation for policy advice, which must be evidence-based, especially in these times.

Most notable in this regard is the planned nationwide antibody study led by Professor Gérard Krause. The aim of this study is to determine what percentage of the population is already immune. 

The data gained from this study will also form the basis for reliable calculations of the efficacy of different measures. This will address questions that are of particular concern to us these days. These types of studies are especially important in view of the limitations affecting our daily lives. The successes that we have achieved thanks to the broad support among the population should not be jeopardised.

I am pleased that funding has been secured for the epidemiological project proposed by the HZI. It will help us to obtain further insights and improve the basis for decision-making by policy-makers.

Karliczek_Thümler_MG_3461_340x220px.jpgProfessor Dirk Heinz, Federal Minister of Education and Research Anja Karliczek and Lower Saxony’s Minister for Science and Culture Björn Thümler © HZI / Verena MeierProfessor Michael Meyer-Hermann’s mathematical models, which we also had on our agenda today, also give us important guidance. This study is particularly interesting because it is interdisciplinary, and represents an important tool for economic risk assessment in this pandemic.

Lastly, we were also given an up-to-date insight into the state of research at the HZI into vaccine and drug development. Drug research is a particular strength of the HZI, and this is extremely useful in these times.

The corona pandemic is a challenge that we could not have imagined a few months ago. But today’s visit has shown us once again: We will overcome this challenge with the help of science – of that I am certain. I would like to thank all the scientists and study participants here at the HZI for their commitment.” 

Researching viruses and bacteria, understanding the human immune system’s response and developing new anti-infective drugs – those are our areas of focus.

Professor Dirk Heinz, Scientific Director of the HZI 

Professor Dirk Heinz, Scientific Director of the HZI,  continued: "In collaboration with important partners, such as the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF), the HZI covers more and more of the entire innovation chain in infection medicine – from basic research to applications. Among our future priorities is personalised infection medicine to enable individually tailored therapies based on a broad range of biomedical data.” While normal life largely came to a halt during the corona pandemic, corona research at the HZI continued at full speed.“As a result, initial research contributions have already been achieved, such as new antiviral drug and antibody candidates against SARS-CoV-2, the national and international use of the SORMAS disease monitoring tool, new studies on immune responses in cured patients as well as competent advising of policy-makers and the general public by our experts in virology, epidemiology and data science,” said Heinz. 

At the end of the visit, Minister for Science and Culture Thümler said, “COVID-19 continues to be a disease that raises many questions. Therefore, it makes sense to step up efforts in research and to position them broadly. The researchers in Lower Saxony are very successful at this. Within the framework of its research strategy, the HZI is also well prepared and sufficiently flexible to react quickly to disease outbreaks such as the current corona pandemic. This enables it to apply its scientific expertise and infrastructure in relevant areas, such as virology, epidemiology, immunology and drug research, on an interdisciplinary basis and to respond in a targeted manner. I am extremely pleased that the rapid, short-notice financial support of numerous research projects at the HZI for basic research on the novel coronavirus and for effective containment of the current pandemic has already led to initial tangible successes, such as high-throughput testing of potential active ingredients or biosafety level 3 laboratories.”

Background

The focus of the visit was the presentation of the new local antibody studies that are being conducted at the HZI and coordinated under the leadership of Professor Gérard Krause, head of the Epidemiology department at the HZI. Scientific data to date indicates that many COVID-19 cases have not been recorded due to mild or asymptomatic courses of infection.

The aim of these localised “hot-spot studies” is to assess immunity in the local population by measuring antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in representative samples of the residents. “Because our antibody study is being performed with comparable methodology in multiple regions across Germany, and in some cases several times, we will be able to evaluate both geographical differences as well as the development over time,” said Krause. “We hope to be able to get a better picture of the frequency of other respiratory infections using the multiple antibody test (multiplex) developed by us specifically for this purpose and therefore to be able to compare the spread of the novel coronavirus with that of other viruses that also cause respiratory infections.”

Another focus of the visit to the HZI was the presentation by Professor Michael Meyer-Hermann, head of the Systems Immunology department, of the results of the mathematical modelling for risk assessment of the economic consequences of the corona pandemic, conducted in conjunction with the ifo Institute. 

At the end of the visit, the guests toured the Science Campus Braunschweig-Süd to find out more about the research activities on intact SARS-CoV-2 viruses in the HZI’s biosafety level 3 laboratory and visited the new drug development centre, which is currently being completed.

Further information about projects currently underway to research the novel coronavirus are here.

What is the BMBF doing against COVID-19? More information about funding activites are on the website of BMBF.

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