World Health Organization Epidemiologist “Only with the Vaccination of Younger People Will the Number of Cases Decrease”

Maria Van Kerkhove, 43, is the technical lead of the COVID-19 team at the World Health Organization in Geneva, making her perhaps the most important woman in the fight against the pandemic.
Coronavirus expert Maria Van Kerkhove: "It feels like one long night.”

Coronavirus expert Maria Van Kerkhove: "It feels like one long night.”

Foto: Anoush Abrar / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Dr. Van Kerkhove, imagine a space traveler who left Earth a year ago and is now returning home. How would you explain the current world situation to that person?

Van Kerkhove: I think such a person would be completely shocked. He probably wouldn't believe me if I explained what happened in his absence. I read that there were researchers who spent the first months of the pandemic on a desert island. It must have been terrible for them to come back. I can hardly believe myself that we have been living in this film for a year. It feels like one long night.

DER SPIEGEL: On Jan. 1, as a WHO coronavirus expert, you received an email reporting a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown cause in the major Chinese city of Wuhan. What went through your mind at that moment?

Van Kerkhove: I was with my family in North Carolina, staying with my sister over the holidays. I think we were cooking dinner when the news came in. I actually get warning emails every holiday -- it's almost always a false alarm. But in this case, I immediately thought it was something serious. It was a cluster, so there had already been several cases that had stood out in the middle of the influenza season among all the other pneumonias. And the Chinese have very good laboratories. If they classified the pathogen as "unknown," then there was a high probability that it really was a novel disease.

DER SPIEGEL: And then ...

Van Kerkhove: ... our senior management, as quickly as it could, called all the relevant groups of people together for a conference call. WHO immediately switched to emergency mode. In North Carolina, it was three o'clock in the morning when the conference started.

DER SPIEGEL 51/2020

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 51/2020 (December 12, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

DER SPIEGEL: Did you already suspect then that it could be a new type of coronavirus?

Van Kerkhove: Of course, I am a coronavirus expert. But it could have been other viruses or Legionella. The important questions were obvious: What kind of pathogen was it? Where had the patients been infected? Were there more people infected? Had the pathogen jumped from animals to humans? On Jan. 4, we landed again at Geneva airport. My husband said to me: "You have been working for this moment all your life. You take care of these pneumonias now, and I'll take care of the house and the children." I immediately went to WHO headquarters. And for the next six months, I was hardly ever at home.

DER SPIEGEL: Only insiders know what exactly happened inside WHO at the beginning of the pandemic. Can you tell us?

Van Kerkhove: There was professional calm and absolute seriousness. Of course, we were on adrenaline, but not frantically, we were laser focused on what needed to be done. We collected data and information and made it available to scientists and governments. We convene public health professionals, front line workers and researchers worldwide and have, for example, made it possible for doctors to exchange information on the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Teleconferences take place in what we call the Shoc Room, the "strategic health operations center." At the beginning of the pandemic, we could hardly get out of there for days, there was so much to discuss.

DER SPIEGEL: How was the cooperation with German experts?

Van Kerkhove: Very close. Especially with the Robert Koch-Institute, but also with scientists like Christian Drosten from Charité in Berlin. The world of virology is small, we have known each other for decades in some cases.

DER SPIEGEL: Back in February, you traveled to China as part of WHO's "Joint Mission" to gather information about the novel coronavirus on site. What did you experience?

Van Kerkhove: When we landed in Beijing at night, the airport was pitch black and deserted. It was very quiet. China was still in the middle of the pandemic. We met staff from the Chinese disease control authority, visited hospitals, the specially built treatment centers, talked to doctors. We also visited animal and food markets and a neighborhood center from where infected people and their contacts were monitored.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you have the impression that the people you were talking to were hiding something from you?

Van Kerkhove: You never really know with any WHO mission, no matter which country you travel to. You are often only shown what is going well. If one of our questions wasn't answered, we asked it again and again in a different form until we had an answer. And the Chinese also had the goal of ending the outbreak. They explained to us how to do it. Our report was full of new, important information.

DER SPIEGEL: But the press conference afterwards seemed decidedly China-friendly. Was that the price WHO had to pay for access to the country?

Van Kerkhove: I don't think it's fair to speak of a price. I actually found many things there impressive. Even the ordinary people in China knew exactly what they had to do to contain the virus. The mood was a bit like I imagine it would be in a defensive war: "We will get through this together."

A coronavirus propaganda show organized by the regional government in Wuhan: "I actually found many things there impressive.”

A coronavirus propaganda show organized by the regional government in Wuhan: "I actually found many things there impressive.”

Foto: Getty Images

DER SPIEGEL: WHO is just starting another mission to China to find the origin of the pandemic. Do you think you will succeed?

Van Kerkhove: It is more of a long-term collaboration. The virus probably comes from a bat. But actually finding it may take years. It is important to first find out which animals could act as intermediate hosts between bats and humans. From these animals, the virus could easily spill over to humans again and again. The search for the origin of the pandemic will, of course, begin in Wuhan. The WHO team will examine the very first corona patients and look for clues and traces, which we will follow further.

DER SPIEGEL: Will WHO also get access to the research laboratories of the Wuhan Institute of Virology? A suspicion that has been voiced time and again is that the pandemic may have originated there.

Van Kerkhove: Yes, the WHO mission team will also meet with the scientists from this research institute. And I think they will work very well with each other. We are all nerds after all!

DER SPIEGEL: After your return from China in February, there were some COVID-19 cases at WHO, and the number of cases in Switzerland rose sharply. In order not to endanger your children and husband, you isolated yourself from your family for two months.

Van Kerkhove: Yes, that was a terrible time. I continued to live at home, but only saw my children through a window. Until my little son, who was one and a half years old at the time, discovered me and ran straight into my arms. That's when I gave up.

DER SPIEGEL: Wasn't the self-quarantine a bit exaggerated from today's point of view anyway?

Van Kerkhove: That's easy to say today. But at the time it didn't feel that way. I did it to protect my family. We simply didn't know how much the virus was circulating in Switzerland and many other things were still unclear. In the meantime, our lives have become much more normal again. We hardly see anyone privately at the moment, but I come home earlier, can put the children to bed and play with them during the weekend.

DER SPIEGEL: In June, you got caught up in a media shitstorm. How did it come about?

Van Kerkhove: It was terrible. I had said at a press conference, as part of a larger answer, that asymptomatic infected people rarely transmit to others. In the sentences before that, I had explained precisely that it was not about infected people who later develop symptoms, nor about those who only have very mild symptoms that often go unnoticed. But this one sentence was then taken out of context and used by some people to supposedly prove that WHO considers the disease to be harmless.

DER SPIEGEL: You were forced to clarify your statement.

Van Kerkhove: Yes, that had to be done. But I haven't quite digested the whole thing yet.  

DER SPIEGEL: In record time, pharmaceutical companies have developed and tested vaccines against the virus. How long will it take for our lives to return to normal?

Van Kerkhove: The number of cases will not noticeably decrease due to the vaccination until the second half of 2021. Initially, it is mainly the elderly and high-risk patients who are to be immunized. It is good to protect them from the disease, hopefully this will greatly reduce the number of deaths; on the other hand, they do not spread the virus as much as younger people. Only with the vaccination of younger people will the number of cases decrease. For the time being, vaccination is just another weapon in our arsenal, but not a panacea. Unfortunately, we will have to keep up the public health measures for a long time.

DER SPIEGEL: In Germany, things are looking quite dramatic and bad at the moment. The "lockdown light" doesn't seem to be working, the case numbers are rising again.

Van Kerkhove: In many European countries, we will be experiencing a hard winter. Europe could certainly learn a lot from Asia. Many countries in the Far East have managed to push the case numbers way down and at the same time remain extremely vigilant. If the number of cases rises again, they immediately react aggressively so that a small fire does not become a conflagration. In the summer, Europe would have had the chance to reach such a stable state as well. But far too many people behaved as if the pandemic was already over. The opportunity to end the pandemic was not seized.

DER SPIEGEL: Will Christmas have to be canceled this year?

Van Kerkhove: Oh dear, do I of all people have to be the one to cancel Christmas? But seriously, I think in regions where the virus is spreading, we should spend the holidays only with the people we live with anyway. Now is not the time for big celebrations in large groups. We can do that when the pandemic is over.

DER SPIEGEL: Will we be able to say at some point: "The epidemic is really over?"  

Van Kerkhove: Yes, definitely. I can't tell you exactly when that will be, but there will be that day of victory. And then I hope the whole world will celebrate a big party together!

DER SPIEGEL: Dr. Van Kerkhove, we thank you for this interview.