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‘A virus like this offers new opportunities.’

23 December 2020

She does twelve interviews per week. Professor of Vaccinology Anke Huckriede is high in demand. Everyone wants to hear her take on the COVID-19 vaccines. And in turn, Huckriede grasps every opportunity to stress the unequivocal importance of vaccination.

It is highly unlikely that she and her husband will be able to go to their native Germany to visit family at Christmas. And singing is definitely off limits. The musical art choir that Anke Huckriede (1959) belongs to had been planning to perform Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in small groups. But the current coronavirus restrictions make rehearsals impossible. ‘I can see myself spending the Christmas period at the table doing jigsaws or something.’

Meanwhile, the UG Professor of Vaccinology has her hands full until Christmas. Huckriede’s extensive knowledge of vaccines and our immune system has turned her into a much sought-after expert. ‘I had twelve interviews last week and another five planned for this week.’

These are the weeks when Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and other manufacturers are presenting their COVID-19 vaccines to the world. Huckriede is pleasantly surprised by the products, particularly by their supposed efficacy. Of course, there are countless questions, such as: how long is a vaccine effective? But don’t mention myths like ‘a jab will give you autism’, or ‘Bill Gates is injecting microchips into us’, in front of her. ‘Absolute rubbish.’

She hopes that people will be queueing up once the campaigns get started, and isn’t against the idea of giving more freedom to those who have been vaccinated. It might make more people willing to get vaccinated. At the time of her interview with Broerstraat 5, this figure is still quite low. Fifty percent, says Huckriede. Young people are particularly reticent.

The professor has the following to say to the doubters and the opponents: ‘The vaccine isn’t just to protect yourself; it’s for all the people you love, too. What’s more, getting vaccinated will allow us to start lifting those frustrating restrictions. I don’t think we’re stressing these latter two aspects enough.’ And with regard to the fear of side-effects: ‘You might have a worse reaction than you do to the flu jab. A painful arm, a temperature, a bit fluey. But that’s a sign of your immune system being activated. If you know that it’s normal, you can think: So what! I’ll get over it.’

Influenza is Anke Huckriede's specialization. Until the coronavirus came along, she was studying how the human immune system reacts to flu vaccines and how infections change people’s immune systems during the course of their lives. In her lectures, she explains how even the smallest of viruses can attack and the huge impact that viruses can have. ‘I find it fascinating.’ The impact of the coronavirus, which managed to bring the entire healthcare system to a standstill, tops the list. But it took a bit of time for Huckriede to realize how serious it was. ‘At first, I wondered why we were getting so worked up about it.’ It was new to vaccinologists and virologists too. ‘In fact, we laughed when colleagues started talking about social distancing.’ Meanwhile, scientists cannot wait to get to the bottom of this insidious virus and destroy it. Researchers are vying for funding.

‘A virus like this offers new opportunities’, says Anke Huckriede. She is working on one of the Lifelines research projects that are being crowd-funded by parties including UG alumni. The participants in this long-term large-scale Lifelines project are asked whether they have had COVID-19, and if so, how serious their symptoms were. ‘We want to know whether this can be linked to their medical history and genetic make-up.’

Huckriede is also working on research into indicators that can predict whether mild symptoms will develop into more severe symptoms, and about how people with cancer will react to the vaccination. Finally, Huckriede is involved in a Groningen study of the antiviral drug hydroxychloroquine.

She even wondered whether she could make her own vaccine – but this was a fleeting thought. ‘You can use a deactivated virus as a vaccine. This is how many flu vaccines work. You ensure that the virus is no longer infectious and cannot replicate itself. This is definitely an option with the coronavirus.’ But she didn’t get any further than thinking about it. ‘All of the big guns are working on these vaccines. You can’t compete. They have billions at their disposal. So there’s very little we can do to compete.’ In addition, Anke Huckriede is aware of how perilous the journey would be. ‘It’s a dangerous virus. You have to be 150% certain of everyone’s safety. The implications of an active virus particle somehow getting into your vaccine would be unimaginable.’

Text: Ellis Ellenbroek
Photo: Jaspar Moulijn
Source: Broerstraat 5

Last modified:16 December 2020 10.29 a.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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