In the spring of 2021, the Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Centre came into existence. Fast forward two years, and we now celebrate a significant milestone: the inaugural PDPC Congress. On October 30, 2023, scientists, students, and representatives from the private and public sector will gather in the city of Utrecht for an inspiring day filled with insightful talks and engaging discussions focused on the theme of preparedness.
Our moderator, Professor Dr. Pearl Dykstra, extends a warm welcome to all participants. She emphasises the significance of this moment, as today’s congress marks the inception of an annual tradition that promises to be a truly exciting event.
Opening keynote speeches
The congress program features presentations from the PDPC’s ‘frontrunner projects’—research groups dedicated to tackling vital yet unresolved questions across various aspects of preparedness. Before we delve into these insightful presentations, two distinguished keynote speakers take the floor.
Prof. Dr. Marion Koopmans, the scientific director of the PDPC, elaborates on the organisation’s objectives. The PDPC’s primary goal is to enhance our capabilities in preventing pandemics and disasters and responding effectively to them, as well as preparing our environment for such crises. This is an intricate endeavor because it deals with “wicked problems,” characterised by their complex nature and the absence of straightforward solutions, necessitating a transdisciplinary approach.
The PDPC’s research agenda encompasses a wide spectrum of concerns, including zoonotic pandemics, vector-borne diseases, water and climate-related disasters, as well as the promotion of societal readiness and resilient healthcare systems. The research teams collaborating on pioneering projects engage with a diverse range of disciplines to address the intricate challenges at hand.
Over 25 organisations have already partnered with the PDPC in pursuit of these objectives. Marion concludes her speech by quoting a poem about moonshot ambitions in pandemic and disaster preparedness. Notably, this poem was not composed by herself but by ChatGPT.
Dr. Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, addresses the question ‘Can we predict the new outbreaks?’ Dr. Daszak points out that the number of pandemics has increased over the past 60+ years, as has the frequency with which they occur. This is concerning; it means that we will see more diseases and pandemics in the future. Pandemics have a significant impact, on our health and on the economy. So why aren’t we better prepared? Initiatives like PDPC should be available in all countries, connected in networks around the globe to monitor early evidence of new diseases and take action. Modern era pandemics all are zoonotic, with bats and rodents being the main vectors. There are many unknown viruses out there that can cause a new disease. Preventing a spillover from wildlife via livestock to humans would help tremendously in keeping a new pandemic at bay. As would stopping actions that cause climate change, like deforestation. One wicked problem in this is convincing the public, industries and governments that this is a real problem; that health is at stake and that a pandemic costs much more money than prevention ever will. We can escape pandemics, but it will take all of us, Dr. Daszak concludes.
Frontrunner project: Vector-borne Arboviral Diseases and Climate Change
After the break, the first Frontrunner project presents itself. This group studies the effect of salinisation and how changing landscapes affect the ecology of mosquitoes, birds and the transmission of viruses.
Professor Dr. Joacin Rocklöv delves into the pressing issue of vector-borne arboviral diseases and their relationship with climate change, offering a European perspective. Disease-carrying mosquitoes are no longer confined to tropical regions. Climate change has enabled these mosquitoes to overwinter in Europe, along with the viruses they carry. These altered conditions provide an environment conducive to virus replication and transmission, leading to the emergence and proliferation of diseases such as dengue fever, West Nile Virus, and Zika virus in European countries. This concerning trend is anticipated to continue its upward trajectory.
Dr. Reina Sikkema’s presentation examines the same issue, but from a local perspective, focusing on the predicted climate changes specific to the Netherlands. Factors like reduced precipitation, intensified extreme rainfall, and rising sea levels are causing salinisation in the Rotterdam delta. Reina and her colleagues are investigating underlying factors, such as shifts in vegetation and habitat, to better understand their impact on mosquitoes and birds. This research is critical for assessing the risk of diseases like malaria and West Nile Virus.
The presentation by this Frontrunner Project concludes with pitches from PhD students Tijmen Hartung, Jordy van der Beek, and Maarten Boonekamp, who will provide insights into their research projects addressing the intersection of climate change and vector-borne diseases.
Frontrunner Project: Living in a bathtub
The next Frontrunner Project deals with the theme flood disaster preparedness.
Climatologist Dr. Aimée Slangen provides insights into the potential consequences of rising sea levels caused by global warming. The Netherlands, situated below sea level, faces a unique challenge as the country resembles a gradually submerging bathtub due to both natural land subsidence and climate change. Projections indicate that by 2050, sea levels may rise by at least half a meter. Looking ahead to the year 2300, the increase in sea levels could range from 3 to 7 meters. It’s evident that these developments significantly heighten the risk of flooding.
Prof. Dr. ir. Bas Jonkman continues, with an outlook on flood disaster preparedness. Events like storm Katrina hitting the city of New Orleans show that unpreparedness can have a dramatic impact. Nearby, and more recently, the largescale flooding in Limburg, Germany and Belgium (2021) is another example. A better flood warning system and targeted information for vulnerable groups, such as elderly, would improve the situation in future flooding events.
Dr. Robert Borst and PhD candidate Karin van Vuuren elaborate on this, explaining how they research the impact of large-scale floods on the healthcare system, and which measures and interventions would have the most effect.
Frontrunner project: Mock press-conference
Frontrunner Project ‘Integrated Early Warning Surveillance Methods and Tools’ present their research project in the form of an interactive mock press-conference.
Dr. Miranda de Graaf, Prof. Dr. Gertjan Medema and their colleagues describe an imaginary situation in which an unknown infection disease affects a number of people in Brazil. The outbreak is traced back to a large batch of blueberries, which is momentarily on its way to Europe. During the press-conference the steps taken to prevent a global outbreak are outlined, making clear just how complex it is to tackle such a situation, how important communication is and how many stakeholders are actually involved. And how/that new surveillance tools are important in the early warning of infectious diseases.
Frontrunner Project: Mis- and disinformation, how to tackle?
One of the Frontrunner Projects focusses on the topic ‘social and urban resilience in times of crises’. Mis- and disinformation play a big role in this.
Prof. Dr. Stephan Lewandowsky explains that in the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the public appeared to have a greater trust in scientists and the vaccines. However, the residual vaccine hesitancy increased over time. Modelling studies show that this trend is expected to continue. Social media play a big role in the spread of misinformation; research shows for instance that 14% of the Facebook engagements during the Covid-19 period contained untrustworthy news. The cost of misinformation is high; it causes more people to die from a lack of inoculation. Misinformation is sometimes spread for political and/or financial reasons, often by the same individuals. The information can be identified by certain markers though, like ‘cherry picking’ facts. Debunking such myths is an important step in preventing the spread of misinformation.
PhD candidate Lotte Schrijver continues by explaining the project that she is working on: developing AI-models to detect misinformation on social media (Twitter/X) in Dutch. She collected 4000 tweets that were posted during the Covid-19 pandemic, fact-checked them and trained the model to recognize posts with misinformation. The model could then be used to estimate the proportion of misinformation in all Dutch tweets over time. A valuable tool for the next crisis? Lotte thinks that, although there are still some ethical and practical issues, the model can certainly be used to estimate the amount of misinformation and indicate where it comes from.
Frontrunner Project: Predicting, measuring and quantifying Airborne Virus Transmission
The last Frontrunner Project is up next. This group aims to develop methods to predict, measure and quantify the spread of airborne viruses.
Dr. Sander Herfst recalls how the Covid-19 pandemic made clear that we know little about the ways in which a virus spreads from one person to another. This information is critical if we want to prevent the spreading. Virus particles are spread by air, by direct contact or indirectly. Questions that remain are, for instance: how far do the droplets travel after sneezing or coughing and how long does the virus stay active after leaving the body?
PhD candidates Suzanne Mijnhardt, Arghyanir Giri and Kaïn Saygan and are working on models that can help solve these questions. They research factors such as the air- and ventilation flows, air samples and droplet size.
Assistant Professor dr. Tess Homan works on the topic of fluid dynamics. How are droplets formed, and how do they break up? Factors like temperature, size, velocity and evaporation time seem to have an effect on fluid dynamics and thus on the spreading of the virus.
Reflection on the Moonshots in Pandemic & Disaster Preparedness
After the presentation of the last Frontrunner Project, it is time to reflect.
Moderator Dr. Anja Schreijer and panel members Dr. Gerard van der Schrier, Prof. dr. Tina Comes, Drs. Joba van den Berg, Dr. Corien Swaan and Prof. dr. Marijn de Bruin look back on a successful, inspiring day. The panel members are struck by the many facts and insights that were presented. Moreover, the multidisciplinary angle and the sheer breadth of the topics are very much appreciated. More than enough ideas to translate to ones own work, they agree. The panel also has tips for the audience, including remarks like: ‘make sure the topic stays on your agenda’, ‘look for allies and make a fist’ and ‘don’t compete but work together’. The panel members’ advice to the PDPC includes: ‘Keep up the good work’, ‘connect with public health services’, and ‘think big!’
Poster presentation winners
The last thing on the agenda: announcing the winners of the poster presentations! A lot of posters have been on display during the day, and congress attendees could vote for their favourite ones.
The winner of the jury award is:
- Maarten de Jong (GGD Amsterdam) and co-authors, with their poster ‘The Use of Passive Samples as Sewage Surveillance around a School in Amsterdam’.
The winner of the audience award is:
- Karin van Vuuren with their poster ‘Caring during Crises’.
And with this ceremony, the official part of the congress comes to an end.
Judging by the reactions, the attendees seemed to have enjoyed the first PCPD congress. Zeinab Nosrati, Master’s student at Erasmus MC, thought it was very inspiring. ‘Especially the session about mis- and disinformation’, she adds. Renske Hoefman, from Sociaal Cultureel Planbureau (VWS) liked ‘the fact there was room to ask questions from other perspectives’ and the multidisciplinary aspects.
‘It was fantastic,’ says PDPC’s scientific director Marion Koopmans, while people gather around the drinks that are served. ‘I’m so proud! There were lots of people from other companies and institutions. And it was great to see how all the frontrunner projects presented their work in their own ways. It’s truly impressive to see how engaged the PhD students are, especially considering that they’ve only recently begun their academic journey. As far as I’m concerned, there will definitely be another PDPC congress next year!’