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How Belgium's coronavirus experts are making science sexy
With the coronavirus pandemic affecting almost every aspect of our daily lives, Belgians have quickly learned scientific concepts like epidemiology and virology that might have been incomprehensible a few months ago.
This is largely down to the likes of Steven Van Gucht, Emmanuel André, Marc Van Ranst and Johan Neyts, scientists who have taken centre stage in explaining the spread and dangers of the virus. They are not only schooling Belgians in medical and mathematical issues but also offering inspiring role models for would-be young scientists.
Belgium decided early on to give the floor to scientific experts to brief the public about the spread of the disease. While prime minister Sophie Wilmés makes occasional appearances announcing the latest government decisions on lockdown restrictions, scientists lead the morning press conferences explaining the rise or fall in daily infection and mortality rates. Although they sometimes have divergent opinions, the scientists’ views are widely respected as motivated by their expertise.
For example, most Belgians are now familiar with Steven Van Gucht, the head of the viral disease division at the Sciensano public health institute. Van Gucht, who is also a virology professor at Ghent University, has been emphatic about how the draconian lockdown measures have helped flatten the curve and save lives.
The scientific leadership has helped alleviate questions about Belgium’s coronavirus mortality rate, which is the highest in the world (excluding San Marino). The experts have been able to explain that this is due to their early decision to include in the listing all care home deaths as coronavirus-related, even in cases where the deceased are not tested. However, the system is controversial, and virologist Marc Van Ranst from Leuven University (KUL), has described it as “stupid” because it gives the impression that the coronavirus is the only cause of death in care homes.
The interfederal spokesmen leading the daily briefings are also scientists. Yves Van Laethem, an infectious disease specialist at Brussels' Saint-Pierre hospital, now has the role, having recently replaced virologist Emmanuel André from the Free University of Brussels (ULB), who is now coordinating Belgium's contact tracing efforts.
Some of these scientists were named in the Group of Experts for an Exit Strategy (GEES), tasked with advising the government on how to phase out the lockdown measures. They include Prof Van Ranst, Prof André, ULB epidemiologist Marius Gilbert, and the head of the Tropical Diseases Unit at University Hospital Antwerp, Erika Vlieghe.
Another GEES member is Hasselt University professor Niel Hens, who specialises in building mathematical models of diseases to predict the evolution of infections like the current coronavirus pandemic. He explains that the role of scientific experts is to give neutral advice that the public can trust and that the government can base its decisions on. “I do think respect is earned because we bring a sound science-based view on things,” he says.
Some of the experts have global reputations. Virologist Peter Piot, who heads the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, is known as co-discoverer of the Ebola virus in Zaire in 1976. Piot, who himself contracted the coronavirus, was last week appointed by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen as her special advisor on how to steer research in the global fight against the pandemic. Johan Neyts, from the renowned Rega Institute for Medical Research in Leuven, has been testing molecules on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of an effort to find a vaccine.
Other scientists who Belgians might recognise from their television appearances include the head of Absym doctors union Philippe Devos, ULB infectious diseases professor Nathan Clumeck, and University of Antwerp microbiology professor Herman Goossens.
Adelheid Soubry, an epidemiology professor at KUL, says she hopes the current appetite in scientific expertise could help create role models for a new generation of doctors and scientists. “It could get young people more interested,” she says. “In an indirect way, I am sure it will influence people by shining a light and inspiring more young people to go into science. They will see how it is important. It can change their views about science.”