Interview • Infection control

Virologists are today’s universal necessities

Globalisation has been a defining term in this 21st century: with almost anybody able to visit any place at any time, diseases, viruses and bacteria can be travel companions. Thus virology is gaining increased attention. Professor Barbara Gärtner, President of the German Association of Virology, talks about the issues and challenges arising from this development.

Interview: Walter Depner

Virology, as an independent discipline, is not necessarily in the public eye, but is increasingly important – is this the case and where would you position your discipline today?

Prof. Gärtner: ‘I think it’s an accurate observation that virology is gaining importance, primarily due to so-called epidemics. Whilst, a few years ago, HIV dominated the headlines, today people are more interested in influenza or tropical viruses such as Zika or Ebola, which in turn are covered more widely and frequently in the non-medical media. Think of the situation in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro 2016 when the Zika virus was a big issue in the media.’

Germany has two professional associations – the DVV, of which you are  President, and the Society of Virology, GfV, with the latter representing virologists not only in Germany itself but also in all German-speaking countries. What are the tasks of the DVV compared with GfV and where do they cooperate?

‘DVV supports public health services with a focus on influenza. Thus we organise an international influenza congress every three years. Other important issues are viral disinfection, infections during pregnancy, virus safety and noroviruses as well as vaccination and antiviral therapy.

Since we primarily represent the public health services sector, private individuals cannot become members of DVV. Our members are, inter alia, the German Federal Ministry of Health and almost all State Ministries of Health. DVV aims to support the public health services sector in fighting viral diseases. Thus, the organisation clearly focuses on applied research.

By contrast, GfV is a medical professional society, an association of individual researchers and scientists in the area of virus infections. Obviously these two organisations share many interests and tasks. All virologists working for DVV are members of GfV and there are a number of joint working groups – this leads to very tight cooperation.’

Would you describe the increasing importance of virology over the past 10-20 years and where is the discipline heading?

‘Firstly, the increasing importance of virology is clearly linked to the fact  that we know more and more viruses, understand their links to certain diseases better and that epidemiology looks at certain viral infections in new ways: all of a sudden we recognise viruses where we did not see them before.

A case in point: Zika virus diseases, or the spread of the Chikungunya virus, which, over the past few years has been conquering many new areas. However, at the same time as the viruses were spreading, our diagnostic capabilities were expanding immensely and viral therapy has seen groundbreaking progress. Take, for example, modern hepatitis C therapies with antiviral medication – they have all but revolutionised conventional therapies that were fraught with side effects.

With the on-going globalisation virus infections will continue to spread. Treating the triggers and diagnostics will become more important – for all intents and purposes that will no doubt hold true for the entire discipline of virology.’

New  insights, as well as external influences, are already forcing virologists to become specialised. Going forward, does a virologist have to be even more of a specialist and what does that mean for interdisciplinary work?

‘As far as basic research is concerned, specialisation is doubtless the name of the game. However, when it comes to clinical virology a broader approach is still possible. Having said that, I should add that new developments in antiviral substances are highly demanding. While in bacteriology, the microbiology specialist physician routinely provides treatment recommendations, in virology the clinical specialists who frequently treat viral infections such as HIV, hepatitis C or CMV in immunosuppressed patients, decide on the therapy.

‘Virology should aim to move beyond diagnostics and be more directly involved with the patients. Close cooperation with other disciplines, such as microbiology, hygiene and other clinical fields seems to be vital.’

With people being ever more mobile, viruses and diseases also travel. What does that mean for national medical societies?

‘The pathogens will spread as human mobility increases and vector-borne  diseases will definitely spread, too. Another issue to deal with in the future is close contact between humans and animals. Many diseases that turn into epidemics are originally zoonoses, meaning they developed in animals, for example, influenza and Ebola. Large-scale – industrial – livestock farming increasingly happens in so-called developing countries. We import those products, which exacerbates the problem.

Thus international cooperation to fight epidemics is imperative. Nevertheless national professional societies will remain important because many aspects have to be implemented nationally. And, in the end, international organisations are made up of national member countries.’

Photo
Professor Barbara Gärtner, President of the German Association of Virology.

Would you describe the increasing importance of virology over the past 10-20 years and where is the discipline heading?

‘Firstly, the increasing importance of virology is clearly linked to the fact that we know more and more viruses, understand their links to certain diseases better and that epidemiology looks at certain viral infections in new ways: all of a sudden we recognise viruses where we did not see them before.

A case in point: Zika virus diseases, or the spread of the Chikungunya virus, which, over the past few years has been conquering many new areas. However, at the same time as the viruses were spreading, our diagnostic capabilities were expanding immensely and viral therapy has seen groundbreaking progress. Take, for example, modern hepatitis C therapies with antiviral medication – they have all but revolutionised conventional therapies that were fraught with side effects.

With the on-going globalisation virus infections will continue to spread. Treating the triggers and diagnostics will become more important – for all intents and purposes that will no doubt hold true for the entire discipline of virology.’

New insights, as well as external influences, are already forcing virologists to become specialised. Going forward, does a virologist have to be even more of a specialist and what does that mean for interdisciplinary work?

‘As far as basic research is concerned, specialisation is doubtless the name of the game. However, when it comes to clinical virology a broader approach is still possible. Having said that, I should add that new developments in antiviral substances are highly demanding. While in bacteriology, the microbiology specialist physician routinely provides treatment recommendations, in virology the clinical specialists who frequently treat viral infections such as HIV, hepatitis C or CMV in immunosuppressed patients, decide on the therapy.

Virology should aim to move beyond diagnostics and be more directly involved with the patients. Close cooperation with other disciplines, such as microbiology, hygiene and other clinical fields seems to be vital.’

With people being ever more mobile, viruses and diseases also travel. What does that mean for national medical societies?

‘The pathogens will spread as human mobility increases and vector-borne diseases will definitely spread, too. Another issue to deal with in the future is close contact between humans and animals. Many diseases that turn into epidemics are originally zoonoses, meaning they developed in animals, for example, influenza and Ebola. Large-scale – industrial – livestock farming increasingly happens in so-called developing countries. We import those products, which exacerbates the problem.

Thus international cooperation to fight epidemics is imperative. Nevertheless national professional societies will remain important because many aspects have to be implemented nationally. And, in the end, international organisations are made up of national member countries.’

20.04.2017

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