Professor Marc Van Ranst grew in no time to become one of the most famous faces in our country. Almost every Belgian knows his name and knows which model of sweaters he is wearing. The ‘Marc Van Ranst song’ has now has more than a million views on YouTube.
But whilst Van Ranst may have become a media figure, he is above all a passionate researcher who wants to protect the population as well as possible against the dangers of the coronavirus. In that pursuit he works around the clock and spends more time in a TV studio than in his own living room. ‘Years of training with little sleep helps me to keep going,’ he says, although he says it takes little effort to correctly inform the population. ‘I know that material, because I've been working on it for years.’
Van Ranst is part of the scientific committee that advises the health authorities and makes forecasts about the development and spread of the virus. His research into the molecular evolution of corona helps with that, but it remains an extremely difficult task.
‘We do indeed have to predict the unpredictable, but fortunately we have a starting point. Knowledge about similar viruses from the past is bundled with what we now know about corona. In Wuhan, the number of corona infections subsided after ten weeks. A flu epidemic in our country lasts on average just as long. Now you’re getting somewhere.’
Van Ranst talks about ‘exercises’ that taught the researchers about fighting viruses. For example, in 2003 there was a SARS outbreak in Asia, and lessons were learned from the bird flu of 2007 and the swine flu of 2009. ‘The only thing we can hope for now is that COVID-19 won't turn out to be an exercise for something worse.’
Despite the appreciation he gets for his work, managing the crisis can also be a thankless task. If the epidemic gets out of hand, you’ve done too little; if it disappears, you’ve been exaggerating. ‘That's not surprising, as people's expectations are constantly changing. When they try to give me credit, I take it with a grain of salt. One day you’re being honoured, the next the guillotine is ready (laughs).’
Learning corona lessons from TB
Whoever mentions Marc Van Ranst in Flanders, mentions Professor Emmanuel André in Wallonia. Like Van Ranst, clinical biologist André is a member of the expert group on corona. At the start of the crisis he was a spokesperson for the francophone Belgians, and afterward he was responsible for the contact tracing strategy. The latter is meant to quickly detect new outbreaks of the virus by also testing those individuals who have come into contact with a patient.
André has conducted extensive research in optimising contact tracing, including after outbreaks of tuberculosis in Congo. His expertise lies more with the latter. ‘The fight against TB is very similar to that of corona,’ he says. ‘They’re both airborne diseases, where the pathogens spread through the air. The measures you have to take against TB and corona are therefore similar: extensive tests, social distancing, facemasks, etc.’
Contact tracing is also one of those measures, André explains. ‘It’s not a magic bullet, but it can help us to contain outbreaks. First and foremost, we need a perfectly functioning basic model and a well-structured legal framework, with respect for privacy. We’re playing a pioneering role in that area, because contact tracing can also be useful in the future, for example in the event of outbreaks of other diseases.’
André has since stepped down from his roles as spokesman for the crisis centre and chair of the Interfederal Committee on Testing & Tracing. This was, in his own words, because he is more a man of 'the start-up', and because he misses his great love: research.
‘I don't like to be in the spotlight,’ he says. ‘I’ve done my best to accomplish these tasks as well as possible, but I’m really happy in the hospital and in the labs of the Rega Institute. I think my expertise is needed there at the moment.’