Professor Wauters conducts research within CONTAGIOUS, a consortium of researchers from KU Leuven, UZ Leuven and VIB. ‘We want to find out why the immune system sometimes reacts so strongly to the corona virus. It is precisely because of this response that someone becomes seriously ill. We’re also looking for biomarkers in blood or body fluids that can predict who will become seriously ill. That way you can start treatment much earlier.’
The researchers found that in some patients there is a failure of communication between different parts of the immune system. ‘Our mission now is to find out exactly what is happening and how we can intervene. As a scientist, you’re fascinated just to know, but here there was also that appeal from the patients, who we sometimes saw deteriorate or die before our very eyes,’ says Professor Wauters.
This led to a speed in the investigation that he calls ‘unseen’. ‘Submitting such a publication to a renowned biomedical journal, it might otherwise take years of research.’
It also affects Wauters to see how well clinicians and basic researchers work together. ‘Fighting together against a common enemy creates a sense of solidarity. Those intense contacts have changed something for good. I'm convinced of that.’
A great deal of time and attention was also paid to working in intensive care units. Caring for COVID-19 patients is physically and emotionally draining, so how can you find the energy for research afterward? Because of the satisfaction it brings, Wauters says. ‘It's about feeling that you’re on to something, something that can alleviate so much suffering.’
In times of severe crisis, there is a human tendency not to regard scientific research as a priority, but that is short-sighted, he says. He’s therefore pleased that UZ Leuven and KU Leuven continue to make room for research in extremely difficult circumstances.
‘Corona has really pushed science forward,’ Wauters concludes. ‘But for every question we answer, five new ones arise. We have work set aside for years to come. I also want to dedicate that work to all the people who have died of corona. Their struggle has not been in vain.’
Streamer: ‘As a scientist you just want to know, but here there was also that appeal from the patients, who we sometimes saw deteriorate or die before our very eyes.’