"A pathogen does not care about the distance between two places"
National symposium for zoonoses research with more than 300 participants in Berlin
19.10.2016. "By trying to see the world from the pathogen's perspective, we can better prepare ourselves for the spread of emerging infections," said Prof. Dr. Dirk Brockmann (Robert Koch Institute and HU Berlin) in his keynote speech at the opening of the National Symposium on Zoo-Nose Research, which was held in Berlin on 13 and 14 October 2016 with over 300 participants. With the help of network theory, patterns could be made visible that would otherwise be difficult to detect. Further keynote speeches and presentations followed with the latest results of zoonoses research - among others on One Health, on Zika vaccines and on the spread of old epidemic traits such as plague and tuberculosis in past centuries.
Network representations extended the limits of our vision - just as the development of telescopes and microscopes had done in earlier epochs, explained Brockmann, who conducts research on complex systems in biology and in particular in infection epidemiology. He said that the connectivity between the nodes of a network is central to this: "A pathogen does not care about the actual distance between two places, the main thing is that there are much used traffic routes and that it is fast". Suddenly Frankfurt and Beijing are closer to each other than some European cities - and the as yet unopened BER airport is in a lonely and infectiologically safe location - with no travel connections anywhere. The application of network theory again shows geometric propagation patterns that appear rather chaotic when observing the conventional map display. In 2014, Brockmann and his team had modelled the possible spread of Ebola via air traffic and calculated the relative risk of importing the pathogen for the 1,227 largest airports worldwide.
Vaccine development lags behind
An overview of recent epidemics and pandemics caused by zoonotic pathogens was given by Professor Ab Osterhaus, Head of the Research Center for Emerging Infections and Zoonoses at Hannover Medical School, in his keynote address. AIDS, bird flu, SARS, MERS, Ebola or Zika - viruses are responsible for all of them. Ebola and Zika in particular show that the mechanism of vaccine development is insufficient: in both cases, the pathogens have been known for a long time, but since the previous outbreaks have remained geographically manageable, no investments have been made in the development of a vaccine. The last major Ebola outbreak was eventually brought under control by other measures without a vaccine, and Zika's epidemic is also expected to be over when a suitable vaccine is finally available. The containment of the outbreak would be much more effective with the help of a vaccine available in time.
As initiator of the One Health Platform, which is also joined by the National Research Platform for Zoonoses for the German community, Osterhaus pointed out that the essential elements of prevention against new and emerging infectious diseases must be developed in "peacetime". The platform will also point this out on the occasion of the international One Health Day on 3 November 2016.
New hypotheses on pathogen distribution from archaeology
The history of infectious diseases in humans probably began only in the Neolithic (Neolithic period) about five to ten thousand years ago, probably due to zoonotic pathogens that spread to humans with the domestication of animals. This was explained by Prof. Dr. Johannes Krause, Director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Mankind, in his keynote address on the second day of the symposium. Little is known about the evolution of zoonotic pathogens, their evolutionary rates and host-pathogen interactions over long periods of time. The investigation of these pathogens using genome research methods and their comparison with the genomes of modern pathogens might in the long term contribute to the prediction and prevention of zoonotic infections.
Krause reported that surprising findings were also found. It was assumed that one of the plague pandemics originated in China. However, the pathogens isolated from archaeological findings have been shown to be genetically very closely related to Yersinia pestis strains of earlier European pandemics. However, the presence of the pathogen in Europe in the meantime could not be proven over a longer period of time. This finding led to new hypotheses about the spread of the pathogen: Either the same pathogen was introduced several times over the centuries from Asia to Europe, or there was an unknown reservoir in Europe in which the pathogen could survive for centuries and then jump back to humans - a hypothesis that could also be relevant for observing epidemics today. In any case, it is now considered very likely that Y. pestis was transported from Europe to Asia via trade routes, only to return to Europe again in the 19th century.
Different strategies for the development of a Zika vaccine
At the end of the symposium, Prof. Dr. Pei-Yong Shi, University of Texas Medical Branch (Galveston/Texas), reported in his keynote speech on current studies on replication and virulence mechanisms of the Zika virus and on the development of a vaccine against the pathogen. Vaccines are already available for various flaviviruses, such as yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, early summer meningoencephalitis and dengue fever. Different strategies are being pursued in parallel for the development of vaccines, each of which has its specific advantages and disadvantages.
Big Data in zoonoses research: clear regulations as well as harmonization and standardization of data necessary
A new focus of the symposium this year was the topic of data management and Big Data in zoonoses research. As representative of the health study NaKo, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Hoffmann (University of Greifswald) reported on the management of sensitive data in human medicine. An elaborate architecture on data flows and a strictly controlled authorization system ensured the protection of the data for a long retention period. Clear rules for use and access also created the basis for the best possible use of the data.
Prof. Dr. Dag Harmsen, University of Münster, reported on the use of whole genome sequencing for the research and control of disease outbreaks. The technology makes it possible to understand transmission patterns better - and increasingly faster. For this, however, it is necessary to use clear classifications and standards. By using them, the amount and complexity of the data produced could be significantly reduced.
Dr. Guy Hendrickx (AViA-GIS) presented various projects whose task is to collect data on the occurrence of different vectors and to visualize them in geographical maps. The information available on potential vectors is scattered and often available in very different formats. In addition, there are always numerous white spots on the map. Therefore, suitable methods and tools need to be developed in order to collect, validate, standardise and optimise such data in a suitable way.
A forum for the promotion of young researchers and exchange between science and public health
This year's National Symposium on Zoonoses Research once again provided a forum for leading zoonoses researchers to meet with young scientists. Among the 54 lectures and 78 posters, the proportion of contributions by younger researchers was very high.
As every year, poster prizes were awarded to the authors of particularly outstanding posters among the submissions by young scientists. First place went to Ramesh Pun from the University Hospital in Bonn, second place to Jana Petzold from the University of Gießen, and the two third places went to Nicole de Buhr from TiHo Hannover and Alexander Volkwein from the Institute of Microbiology of the German Armed Forces in Munich.
The Young Scientists Breakfast on the second day of the symposium once again offered young researchers the opportunity to exchange ideas with established research personalities about different career paths.
Dr. Jürgen Thelen (German Federal Ministry of Health) also emphasized this support of young scientists and the important function of the zoonoses platform and the symposium for the exchange between science and health care in his opening address. Since zoonotic infectious diseases represent a major challenge for the health of the global population, four Federal Ministries - for Health (BMG), for Education and Research (BMBF), for Agriculture (BMEL) and for Defence (BMVg) - renewed the research agreement on zoonoses concluded in 2005 this spring.
Internal Advisory Board of the Zoonoses Platform newly elected
The annual general meeting of the Zoonoses Platform with election of the Internal Advisory Board also took place during the symposium. The following persons were elected:
A representative of BMBF-funded zoonoses consortia:
o Dr. Birgit Walther;
drei Vertreter BMEL- oder BMG-geförderter Zoonosenverbünde:
o Prof. Dr. Uwe Rösler,
o Prof. Dr. Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit,
o Dr. Karin Schwaiger
five other representatives of zoonoses research:
o Prof. Dr. Martin Beer,
o Prof. Dr. Christian Drosten,
o PD Dr. Sandra Eßbauer,
o Prof. Dr. Martin Pfeffer,
o PD Dr. Rainer Ulrich;
a representative for young scientists (already elected in summer at the Junior Scientist Zoonoses Meeting 2016):
o Dr. Jan Schinköthe.
In addition, the following permanent representatives of the federal institutes BfR and RKI were appointed:
o Dr. Anton Aebischer und
o Prof. Dr. Reimar Johne.
The three site managers of the National Research Platform for Zoonoses
o Prof. Dr. Martin Groschup,
o Prof. Dr. Stephan Ludwig und
o Sebastian C. Semler
are also permanent members of the Internal Advisory Board.