Interview with Prof. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann, Director of the Institute of Environmental Medicine, Helmholtz Munich, and Professor of Environmental Medicine at the University of Augsburg

The Covid-19 pandemic has clearly shown that there is still a lot of potential in research structures and funding to better manage a pandemic. Prevention plays just as important a role as dealing with the pandemic. Technological measures that can facilitate virus detection or help to analyze the course in more detail need to be developed.

In an interview with, Prof. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann provides concrete examples of how research infrastructures can be further improved.

Prof. Traidl-Hoffmann, which research areas have emerged as particularly important for pandemic management/prevention?

Prof. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann: One important area of research is the mode of virus transmission. Aerosol transmission, like with Covid-19, is something we have come to understand in a whole new way as a result of the pandemic. This required appropriate interdisciplinary research efforts. We founded a consortium in the Helmholtz Association in which we research aerosols and how they are distributed in the air. With the help of simulations, the CORAERO consortium can investigate how aerosols are distributed in an aircraft, for example. The project is ongoing to prepare for the next pandemic, which will most likely again be spread by an aerosol-borne virus.

Image Credit: monkeybusiness

This also includes the early discovery and detection of viruses in the air. We are investigating how the virus binds to very specific surfaces and how this binding alone creates a signal that can then be detected within seconds. This approach could be used to develop devices that work like an alcohol meter, only as a virus detection device. This is an area of research with great potential for rapid detection in people carrying the virus. Taken a step further, systems could be developed that suck in air at airports and detect viruses directly in the air.

Another important area of research is the disease itself. How can the course of the disease be predicted? For this, we have been working on a patent for a product that makes it possible, on the day of infection – when people take the PCR test – to predict the course of the Covid-19 disease on the basis of a profile of cytokine messengers. This allows us to tell on the day whether a severe course will occur and whether the person will be hospitalized. The goal here is to be able to identify people at high risk and provide them with appropriate early medical care, including the new medications that we have on hand. This could be beneficial for other viral infections as well and thus represents an important part of pandemic prevention.

To improve research infrastructures, laboratories, as they are now being built, must also be cross-accessible to researchers and the industry.

Environmental medicine and pandemic prevention/management – how do they fit together?

Traidl-Hoffmann: It turned out that Covid-19 infection rates were high in regions where there was also a high level of environmental pollution. This correlation between pollutants in the air and severe courses of disease shows how important it is to look at environmental medicine and pandemic prevention and management together. Studies have found that pollutants make mucous membranes more susceptible to many things. This includes many types of pollen. A cross-continental study has shown that pollen is actually associated with an exponential increase in Covid-19 infections because it blocks our immune system locally and makes people more susceptible to Covid-19. This shows that the environmental factor plays a major role in viral infections and their progression. However, many don't bring these factors together or don't think it is that important. But the environmental factor should actually be brought into the equation in all clinical trials.

In March 2023, the new laboratory with biosafety level 3 was opened at Helmholtz Munich. Why are such research facilities and corresponding funding so important for pandemic management and prevention?

Traidl-Hoffmann: The construction of the new S3 laboratory at Helmholtz Munich was part of the PerForM-REACT project, in which we received almost 18 million euros in funding for infrastructure with the goal of preparing ourselves to face the next pandemic. As part of this funding, we have established various modules – one of which is the S3 laboratory. In Augsburg, we have a laboratory where we can detect and research virus particles in the air. Here, we are already conducting research on climate change and health, so we can be more proactive next time. This is precisely why these infrastructure grants are important, so that we can move from merely reacting to taking action and being better prepared.

How can research infrastructures be improved even further?

Traidl-Hoffmann: One possibility is high-tech equipment. These simply have to be accessible in the laboratories that are being built now. The most important thing here is science communication. Because building the labs is not enough. It must also be communicated that they are available – both for cooperation partners and for the industry. In addition, if a certain question is posed, the corresponding funding opportunities should also be available at short notice and without additional bureaucracy. A sensible networking of the major research structures can be helpful here as well.

What does "pandemic preparedness" mean for you?

Traidl-Hoffmann: On one hand, what we have set up technologically with the laboratories. We have set up our methods in such a way that viruses and bacteria can be detected and tracked down at an early stage.

On the other hand, "pandemic preparedness" for me means prevention among people. After all, serious illnesses are more likely to occur in people with pre-existing conditions, the elderly, and the weak. We need a population that is as healthy as possible, and this awareness must be firmly anchored in people's minds. This helps not only with pandemic prevention but also with the health consequences caused by climate change.