The COVID-19 pandemic has placed the entire world in an incomparable state of emergency. Together with the medical profession and political decision-makers, the scientific community has faced a new virus raising many unknown aspects, causing profound repercussions.
Luxembourg research players have mobilised in a common effort and extraordinary comradery through the creation of the COVID-19 TaskForce. The catchphrase: consolidate research efforts on the coronavirus to stem the crisis and protect the population alongside the government.
In this emergency climate, LIST has been able to transfer its expertise and advanced technologies in the fields of environment, materials and IT to the fight against SARS-CoV-2. Henry-Michel Cauchie, researcher and representative of LIST within the TaskForce, reveals his role and that of LIST through this national coordination.
Ulf Nehrbass, CEO of the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) in particular was at the origin of this initiative in March 2020 to bring together research players through working groups and a steering group. In three phases, Henry-Michel describes how the TaskForce was able to adapt to evolve at the pace of the crisis: “At the beginning, it was important for the TaskForce to establish the main working groups, for example to carry out large-scale tests or identify the most relevant scientific information to understand the virus, and see where each case was."
However, in the face of border closures and growing public concern over food, TaskForce quickly realised the need to expand its fields of action. "For example, we used LIST's expertise in IT and logistics to create a dedicated working group,” Illustrated Henry-Michel.
Initiatives only saw the light of day thanks to a unique national collaboration: "We were in contact 7/7. Despite the emergency climate and the 12 to 14 hours of work per day, we have developed extraordinarily collaborative and positive work with a real awareness of the national interest,” testifies Henry-Michel while looking forward to the continuation of this long-term cooperation.
In May, the decline of virus circulation in Luxembourg gave birth to a new stage, that of progressive deconfinement. A new group was thus born out of the desire to support the country's strategy to end the crisis.
"Our institute, although not specialised in the field of health, has a mass of directly transferable knowledge, methodologies and technologies for management of the COVID-19 pandemic,” explains Henry-Michel.
As the country came out of the worst of the crisis, this research was illustrated by its importance for the implementation of deconfinement measures, both health and socio-economic. "For example, we started monitoring coronavirus in wastewater from the start of the pandemic. If the interest of such a technique did not seem obvious at first glance, our first results were essential and complementary to clinical tests to follow the spread of the virus. “, Henry-Michel elaborated.
LIST research has indeed become an integral part of the TaskForce to establish the crisis exit strategy and assess the risk of a second wave.
"When TaskForce was formed, I was appointed as LIST representative because of my expertise in environmental risk analysis, and more specifically in environmental virology. During the first weeks, I tried to identify and suggest to the TaskForce what LIST could bring in this fight against Coronavirus, in all research areas of the institute.
I was in close contact with Luxinnovation, and in contact with Luxembourg companies. We helped them validate disinfection systems for masks or potentially contaminated surfaces, for example.
Finally, I actively contribute with Leslie Ogorzaly and my entire team to the surveillance of the virus in Luxembourg's wastewater. Our technique, which allows us to be very precise, is directly connected to the operational aspects of the crisis exit strategy. It makes it possible to link health and environmental data”.
After completing a doctoral thesis on the recovery of biomass produced in a wastewater treatment system installed in Luxembourg in 2000, Henry-Michel Cauchie worked as an ecologist in aquatic environments at the Gabriel Lippmann Research Centre. He took on the responsibilities of group leader in 2002 and more specifically developed activities in environmental microbiology. When LIST was created, he took over the management of the Water Security and Safety unit and, since 2018, the management of the Environmental Microbiology and Biotechnology group. He is today one of the cornerstones of the establishment of the Green Tech Innovation Centre. In the context of the health crisis linked to SARS-CoV-2, Henry-Michel represented LIST within the steering group of Task Force COVID-19 and piloted with his colleague Leslie Ogorzaly the monitoring of wastewater with regard to concerns the coronavirus.