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[Article series] The experts behind Luxembourg's COVID-19 fight

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Published on Tuesday, 07 April 2020

Prof. Rudi Balling (RB) is the Director of the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine of the University of Luxembourg, where people with broad and diverse backgrounds focus on understanding the mechanisms of disease. Before coming to Luxembourg, Prof. Balling was the Director of the Helmholtz Centre in Infectious diseases in Braunschweig, where he focused, in addition to the understanding of infectious diseases, also on the development of pandemic response plans. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic Prof. Balling is coordinating approaches from Luxembourg researchers for COVID-19 statistical projections and their potential for political decision support for the healthcare system. In this short interview, he discusses his expertise and involvement in ongoing COVID-19 projects.

1)     Could you tell us more about your background and expertise?

RB: I am a biologist by training and my expertise is mainly on disease mechanisms. Before coming to Luxembourg, I was the Director of the Helmholtz Centre in Infectious diseases in Braunschweig, I am therefore quite familiar with infectious diseases, their mechanisms and the immune response to them. Here in Luxembourg, as Director of the LCSB my expertise was more directed towards bringing together knowledge and people with broad and diverse backgrounds and to focus on understanding the mechanisms of diseases. Although we focus mainly on neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer disease and epilepsy, the question of aging as a critical factor for the response of patients to COVID19 is highly relevant for both disease groups.

2)     How is your expertise relevant in the current COVID context?

RB: I am very well connected in the Luxembourg research and healthcare system, making it easier for me to connect and bring together the relevant people. Secondly, the methods used by our researches at the LCSB to understand disease mechanisms, even though the focus is on neurodegenerative diseases, are also relevant for COVID-19. We still understand very little about this new virus. What is the projection of the disease on the population? Why are some people dying and others without symptoms? Can we develop computational models precise enough that tell us how will COVID-19 develop? The expertise acquired at the Helmholtz Centre in Infectious diseases during the SARS epidemic is also valuable as we want to study the mechanisms of a virus in order to establish pandemic response plans.  

3)     What is your specific role in ongoing COVID projects?

RB: I have been contributing to the establishment of the taskforce and as mentioned I am coordinating approaches for COVID-19 statistical projections and their potential support for the healthcare system. Based on data provided by the Ministries, we developed a workflow for daily simulations on evolution, impact and spread of the COVID-19 outbreak. For this workflow our researchers had to agree on a model, identify relevant datasets and establish a review process before transmission to Ministries. 

In the short-term, such modelling projections will inform on the development of the COVID-19 pandemic in Luxembourg and can forecast the burden on the healthcare system. In addition, with the team I am now also working on mid-term projections to understand for how long social distancing and other measures might have to be in place before people can safely resume their everyday life outside their homes.

4)     Could you tell us more about your collaborators?

RB: There are over 50 people involved in the team working on modelling the projections of the pandemic, these include Dr Alexander Skupin (LCSB), Prof. Jorge Gonçalves (LCSB),  and a number of modellers from their teams, Prof. Paul Wilmes (LCSB) and his team, people from the Faculty of Science Technology and Medicine of the University of Luxembourg, Prof. Ulf Nehrbass from the LIH  and people from other research institutions, from STATEC, from the Ministry of Health etc. It is great to see that people are bringing themselves in and applying their skills to a completely different domain than from their usual research.

 

Picture: © Science relations