Why did you want to be a virologist – do you just love viruses, or did you feel a call to help fix what is obviously a big societal problem?
When I did my master’s thesis on microbiology, specifically about a sugar-transporting component of a bacterium, it was fascinating but I felt dissatisfied. I thought it wasn’t really helping society and wanted a bigger challenge. That’s when I first thought that I wanted to do something with host-pathogen interactions and to go into more medical research.
When I was looking for PhD positions, I read these papers by Thomas F. Schulz, about a herpesvirus causing tumours. I thought, oh this is really interesting, emailed him, interviewed and he hired me as a PhD student. We wanted to understand how a specific viral protein contributed to tumour formation. I was really driven by that, to understand how it worked mechanistically, and how one could disrupt that viral protein with targeted approaches – it’s what I’m still doing now, by and large. So I was fascinated by the science but I also wanted the direct link to disease so that I could help people one day.
How does the pandemic fit into all that?
When you do basic research like I do, often you don’t get to see the result of your progress. It’s likely that in my lifetime, I won’t see a vaccine against the virus I’m working on, or even a drug to cure people from this chronic virus. Maybe it’ll never happen – although I am deeply convinced we’ll succeed.
But now we have a pandemic, and I wanted to contribute to our understanding of this new virus and help people to grasp what was going on, how they could protect themselves, and what science was doing to protect them. I got very engaged in the media because I thought, okay, someone needs to communicate the issues around this virus to the public. They need advice, some voices to guide them.
My first publication on SARS-CoV-2 was a really important paper – it changed the hygiene standards at a workplace and contributed to our understanding that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted via aerosols. It was about a meat processing plant where the workers were working in cold temperatures with little fresh air flow and only thin masks. In this environment, one worker infected many others via long distances, proving that the virus was transmitted via aerosols. The plant then put in air purifiers, changed the airflow, and had the workers wear better masks. I think that paper really benefited society.
What was it like when you first entered the public debate on COVID?
One day I was called up by a newspaper and I gave a very simple interview: I just explained what a virus was and what a person could do to avoid infection. Then, it became like a domino game. I didn’t realise at the time that when you start getting involved, it’s very hard to stop. You’re approached all the time, and you are getting hundreds of emails after media appearances and many new invitations – I wasn’t aware of that when I started. If I had been, maybe I wouldn’t have agreed. Of course, I didn’t expect that I’d have to do it for that long, or that now this winter, I will have to do it again.
Were you worried?
There wasn’t time to be. When I first went on TV in the beginning, it was rather easy, no hate emails until the summer. Then in the summer, when the wave went down, it started to get rough. People started to say: the virus is gone, while I had to say, no, the virus isn’t gone. It took a lot of courage to do that because the emails got very nasty. It helped that other scientists had the same experience and that we shared our thoughts about it, saying: well, we are not going to shut up, we have to keep warning people.
In autumn 2020, I realised things were not going well. The policy makers weren’t acting early and bravely enough. It’s like Mike Ryan [director of WHO Health Emergencies, ed.] always points out: we need to act hard and early to get this under control. That’s what I and others tried to explain to policymakers: keep virus circulation at low numbers. In early 2021, we created the No COVID initiative in Germany but it was hard because people didn’t really understand what we were aiming at – we were seen as the ‘lockdown group’, while really we were saying that once there’s low virus circulation, you can keep it low with intelligent measures and thus have more freedom again, and at the same time, a low number of sick or dying people. But it was really difficult to communicate that.
Now we are back where we were. I just published a Joint Call for decision makers in Germany along with many other scientists and medical doctors. It’s a call to say that we are not on a good path and this fourth wave may hit us harder than the last – and that despite the fact that we have the key tool in our hands, the vaccines.
If you look back on the last two years, do you think the public understanding of viruses has improved in that time?
I think that many more people gained a good understanding of this virus, the pandemic and the science, and even if they don’t fully understand, at least they trust the science. And I want to focus on that group of people, and not on the people that send hate emails. It’s important to still communicate for the benefit of the people who decided to get the vaccine, who understood that the virus was a real threat. Because it also helps them feel better and think, yes, I did choose the right thing. And maybe they can still convince others.
How do we communicate properly to people when there’s so much inherent uncertainty in developing new science?
It’s important to say, ‘well, it’s a new virus. We don’t know many things about it yet. Please be patient with us.’ You have to be straight and transparent about it. And make people aware that new scientific findings can change recommendations.
What are your hopes for the immediate future?
I hope that people believe and trust in science – and that there are more people that believe in science than people that don’t. I hope the pandemic shows us our weak spots so that we can fix them and be prepared for the next pandemic. I hope that policymakers have learned that microbes can be more threatening than weapons that you can see with the naked eye. That we need to put more financial power into research and health. We have neglected many other infectious diseases that are still raging in other parts of the world. For me, the most important thing is that we have better, more accessible, more affordable health care and invest in preventative measures – so many diseases are preventable.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, Prof Brinkmann.
(© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)