Coronavirus: crisis or opportunity? Microbiologist & public health expert answers

I don’t have to be a microbiologist and public health professional to know that humankind has faced pandemics before. Between 1918-1920, the Spanish flu took approximately 50 million lives in a world population of about 1.8 billion. Since then we have heard of Ebola, Zika virus, SARS, MERS, swine flu and avian flu among others.

Except that they seemed so far away, or not as severe.

The new coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), a novel infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was characterised as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation in March 2020. A pandemic is an epidemic that affects a whole country or, in this case, the entire world.

Although scientists have always known that another big pandemic might be coming, most people feel blindsided by this unexpected and rapid development.

Like influenza, the virus spreads between people via droplets people exhale when they cough or sneeze, for example. Infected people are most contagious when they are symptomatic, although contraction may happen before any symptoms such as fever, coughing, and shortness of breath appear. There are typically five days between exposure and symptom onset, but it may be anywhere from two to fourteen days. Data is very preliminary at this point.

Today we have no vaccine or specific antiviral treatment, and our efforts are limited to symptom alleviation and supportive therapy.

Even though nobody really knows how this is going to evolve in the long term, the hope is to develop a vaccine as fast as possible. Virologists say, that’s because Corona viruses are sensitive to heat, it can be hoped that case numbers will go down during the hot summer months. The illness will recur in autumn, however. The new virus will most probably become endemic, constantly circulating in the population like influenza and other viruses. After a few years, most people are going to be either vaccinated or immune due to having already had the illness. Up until then the goal is to slow the virus down to lower the death toll and to prevent health services from collapsing.

Coming back to the present day, people want to know what they should do right now.

First of all – stay calm. Fear and panic are the worst adviser. Try to find reputable information (UK; Germany) and trust in scientists and official authorities. Don’t believe any WhatsApp-news and don’t share information except after having checked its source and trustworthiness.

Information hygiene is as important as hand hygiene in times of crisis!

Other than that – implement physical distancing. Stick to your country’s rules and stay updated since these rules can change from day to day. Look out for people over 60, as well as people with pre-existing medical conditions who may be at a higher risk of severe or even fatal symptoms if infected. Perhaps do their grocery shopping or pick their medicine from the pharmacy and place them at their front door. Walk their dog so they don’t have to go out. Keep your distance.

Wash your hands, especially after contact with other people and after being outside shopping or the like, with warm water and soap – as long as it takes you to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Need more info and maybe a small laugh?

Donate blood. Blood reserves can only be used for a certain amount of time. If people stop donating now there won’t be enough blood left in a short while. Check your country’s donation organisation’s website for dates and places and the rules during this time.

Support local and small businesses by buying gift cards, donating or ordering online.

There’s a lot of groups on social media that are organising help. Connect yourself. Give your phone number to your neighbours in case they need anything. Call your grandparents. Isolation makes you lonely and this can have severe negative impacts on your health as well as described in part I of this story.

With this we come full circle and I’d like to close with a hopeful reflection: every crisis is a chance for change. People from all over the globe are connecting online, helping each other out, having balcony concerts or Skyping with strangers who were lonely or scared. This makes me believe in humankind. The rapid digitalisation taking place in my country to keep schools running online and people working from home makes me think: “finally, better late than never”. Nature can take a breather with factories standing still and planes being grounded. Our world will never be the same after this and it’s terrible that people we know will die and others will lose their livelihoods. But the spirit of international cooperation, professionalism and trust that I experience and cherish from working in the space sector at the Austrian Space Forum will help us through this difficult time.

Stay safe and try to use your time in isolation to reflect, catch up and recharge for the times ahead!

Illustration: NASA-Langley.

How to survive Coronavirus self-isolation: An analog astronaut explains

After exiting my sleeping quarters, three steps lead me to the sanitary room which is only a few steps wide itself. I have my privacy there but, as soon as I leave it and join my fellow teammates at the breakfast table, I won’t be alone for hours. In the small, restricted confines of our habitat we eat, sleep, carry out experiments, do our fitness routine and our daily housekeeping chores. After one week in isolation, my mood starts taking a slight downturn. As much as I like my teammates – we were tested extensively and chosen for compatibility after all – I miss my family, open spaces, just being alone by myself!

If I want to talk to my loved ones, I have to use online tools and my time and bandwidth is restricted.

Does this ring a bell?

Up until recently, this scenario was only familiar to a limited number of people working or living in remote places, on ships or research stations as well as astronauts and people in medical quarantine. Being an analog astronaut myself, it’s a situation I expect to find myself in soon during the Austrian Space Forum’s next analog mission AMADEE20 in the Negev desert in Israel in autumn of 2020. We train and prepare for this kind of isolation months in advance, yet we still feel the psychological and physical effects.

The new Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 changed all that, in the blink of an eye. Millions of people worldwide have been cast in isolation from one day to the next, with no clear end in sight.

Researchers have done and are still doing extensive work on the medical and psychological effects of isolation on the human mind, body as well as on groups of people. One goal of this research is to prepare humans for long-time space travel. The unprecedented situation we find ourselves in warrants the question:

What can we learn from this research to help with the current crisis?

A study by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of British Columbia, Vancouver, found that 5% of the people who went into long-time isolation with zero psychological disorders came out of it exhibiting at least one psychological disorder. This may seem like a small number, but it isn’t. People in isolation face several emotional challenges, as most of you might be able to attest. There’s the feeling of impotence and of being at the mercy of a higher power.

Being cooped up in small spaces, seeing the same people day after day, little exercise, having little time and room to yourself, monotony and boredom or stress at the other end of the spectrum (try home-office with three kids!), sensory deprivation and maybe even rationing can lead to a number of problems. Sleep disturbance and impaired cognition up to a subclinical depressive mood can set in after some days already. They have a negative effect on interpersonal relationships and conflicts can break out between family members and flatmates (looking at you, my dear husband).

While of course tolerance, cooperation and patience are useful traits to cope with these problems, here are some concrete tips on how to stay healthy, active, sane and in my case married.

For shared living spaces, psychologists recommend identifying certain areas as private, such as the desk or entire rooms. These should be a retreat for some alone-time compared to places shared by everyone, such as the kitchen or bathroom. Communication among all involved is crucial for this. Everyone should identify their needs. Ideas for implementing those wishes should be thought up together. One possible solution could be a timetable that shows who gets to use which room at what time. In any case, a change of perspective also helps. Because we feel controlled from the outside by quarantine requirements or restrictions and severely restricted in our autonomy, it is important to find freedom in small ways.

You could take up old hobbies that are fun and doable inside or even try out new ones. A regular daily routine helps to stay active but, at the same time, you should try to add flavour by mixing things up (have you ever wondered about astronauts playing with their food or posing in silly costumes?). It’s about perceiving more than the limitations by thinking about ways in which we can actively shape our lives. Looking to the future after the Coronavirus crisis such as looking up all the places you are going to visit may also help.

Think about this: most people have been in fact wishing for fewer things on their to-do list and more time with their family!

We’ve got just that right now. It’s not about “careful what you wish for”, it’s a chance to use this time as a gift and play games with your kids, catch up on things you didn’t have time for in the hurly-burly of your daily routine and reflect on the important things in life. Maybe there are things that you would like to change permanently after the crisis?

Even though I’m a microbiologist by training I find it amazing how such a microscopic thing can affect the whole world!

One of my other hats is public health professional. I’m a PhD-student in Public Health with eight years of experience as a team leader in infectious diseases control at a local public health department in Germany. My main subject of study is health literacy, which means the organisational and individual competence to access, understand, appraise and apply health-related information in order to make healthy decisions. You can imagine how in these trying times this competence is more crucial than ever.

I’ll tell you more about this and provide some insight in a follow-up article, stay tuned!

Illustration: NASA-Langley.

Martian deserts on Earth – II

One summer day in 2018 I spotted a small article in the local newspaper as I sat at my desk at work having lunch; the Austrian Space Forum was auditioning for a new class of analog astronauts. It sounded like an amazing opportunity so I immediately checked out the website. Over the next few days I feverishly prepared and sent in my application.

That I might be an analog astronaut one day would not have occurred to me even two years ago. My career path has been a very winding one with a sole constant, the joy of learning.

As a child books were my best friends. I shared my mum’s fascination with astronomy and nature and my dad’s fascination with trains, planes and space. We talked about and discussed almost anything and I’m very thankful to them for always believing in me and letting me know that I could be whatever I wanted to be.

Unlike those who know from an early age that they want to be a firefighter, doctor or an astronaut I never had one dream job. As Albert Einstein put it “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

After high school, I wanted to see the world so I crossed the ocean to work as an Au Pair for a year in Virginia. Then I decided to study a topic that always fascinated me, biology. So I went to a university in Berlin and took every class I could from anatomy to palaeontology to genetics and ended up doing a masters in microbiology. Changing the DNA of E.coli cells with my own hands was an amazing experience. So was falling in love and having three kids, all while doing another master’s degree in engineering, teaching, working in an environmental lab and recently leading a team for infectious disease control at a local health department.

Now I’m a PhD student in public health in Germany. I investigate how health organisations can optimise their work, so that the people they serve can better find, understand and use information on environmental health topics to make informed life choices and lead healthy lives. With every new thing I do or study I try to build on the things I’ve already experienced. I see connections and possibilities everywhere and try to integrate that in my work and life.

One late autumn evening in October, I was working on my research when an email appeared in my inbox. It was an invitation to Innsbruck in Austria for an intense selection weekend, alongside 30 others. More than 100 people had applied from all over Europe. My application was successful and I was overjoyed. I felt that a whole new world was opening up for me.

When I first met the other candidates, an impressive group of talented professionals, a severe case of imposter syndrome set in. But it didn’t take long for us to grow into a close team with a common goal. The tough selection process whittled our group down to 16 and finally to eight. We were tested for physical and medical fitness, endurance, motor skills, capacity for teamwork, creativity and patience among other skills. I felt in my element, like a fish in water and realised that often our biggest obstacles are the ones we construct in our own heads, which are validated by the absence of role models. When I was finally chosen as the only female analog astronaut in the class of 2019 I felt elated, proud and also responsible to be a good role model. Although gender didn’t play a role in the selection process, the suit that analog astronauts train in is a hefty 50 kg which sadly causes a selection bias.

Now, besides testing space suit simulators and carrying out field missions, we are the Forum’s public face and STEM-ambassadors in the media and at educational events. This significantly contributes to inspiring and educating young people in science, technology and engineering.

Quality education is one of the 17 United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. These goals are interdependent and include good health and well-being, sustainable communities, clean water and sanitation, responsible consumption and production, gender equality, and clean energy. When we prepare to go to other celestial bodies we need to make sure that we learn from our past mistakes, from building sustainable settlements to using local resources responsibly and everything in between. Today, as analogue astronaut and public health professional, these 17 goals underpin everything I do.

When I sent that application I did not believe I stood a chance, but I know that I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t tried. Being selected was a lesson for me to be more confident and to encourage myself and others to venture into new experiences, not only to grow but also to give back.

Illustration is by Cambridge-based artist Naomi Davies.

Martian deserts on Earth – I

As the visor closes, the head-up display of my spacesuit lights up while initialising. I’m hit anew by the realisation that from now on, I’m completely dependent on my skills, the technology of my suit and the support of my team if I’m to survive the next few hours unscathed. I’m thinking ahead to the days to come…

After exiting our habitat, we take a look around the isolated, barren desert surrounding the small structure while Operations in the base check our suits’ telemetry. With the equipment wheeled by two vehicles, we carefully pick our way through the valley leading from the base to the area we are scheduled to explore today. As we follow the line on the map shown on our displays, the incessant wind blows sand into our vision. We can’t hear its hiss, however, but only our own laboured breathing, the humming from the live-support fans and voices from the headphones connecting us to each other and the base.

What sounds like a scene from “The Martian” will actually take place on our home planet Earth, where the Austrian Space Forum’s analog astronauts conduct their missions, and I am one of them.

The Austrian Space Forum is based in Innsbruck, Austria. It is one of the leading institutions conducting Mars analog missions to propel our future exploration of the Red Planet. Analog astronauts carry out spaceflight-simulations on Mars-like patches on earth, testing and evaluating workflows and human factors pertinent to our exploration of Mars. Analog research is designed to test concepts and equipment. After all, we don’t want to send a billion-dollar mission to Mars only to realise that we should have packed a cross-tip screwdriver instead of a hexagon one! It also checks working procedures, and any weak spots so that the actual mission can be realised as safely as possible. For example, handling an astronaut who gets hurt on an extra-vehicular activity or figuring out what to do if we lose contact with base since we wouldn’t have GPS on Mars.

The Austrian Space Forum does advanced scientific research with national and international institutions. Thus its analog astronauts are carefully selected experts who are trained to do science field activities while wearing spacesuit simulator prototypes. My training includes learning planetology, mechanics, geology and astrobiology. It also involves media training, stress management, emergency care, fitness, quadbike training and above all operating a 50 kg spacesuit prototype that digs into my shoulders while I try to concentrate on doing intricate tasks. This training is pertinent to the next mission Amadee-20 in the Israeli Negev desert next year, which I hopefully will be part of.

You may be asking why crewed spaceflight at all? Why bother going to Mars? Beyond the fact that exploration is in our genetic fabric, for me it’s about understanding our planet’s history and the origins of life. Answers to those big questions lie on distant planets suspended in the vast cosmic darkness. If we understand how planets form, how atmospheres develop and disappear, and how climate works we can better understand our planet and all the ways we influence it. When we go to space we come back with better solutions for our earthly experiences. Spaceflight products make our life easier every day, from the cordless power tools to the GPS. Thus settling on Mars is not the ultimate goal but a necessary step to keep our home planet habitable. Above all, hardly anywhere but in the space sector do you find so many people of different genders, skin colours, religious and political beliefs working together relentlessly towards a common goal.  

One of the tasks of our next mission is to figure out how to keep extra-terrestrial environments pristine. When looking for traces of life on other planets we need to make sure that we don’t contaminate those worlds with our own biological signatures. This is also true when we bring back samples to study here on Earth. One of Amadee-20’s objectives is testing life-detection workflows and do contamination experiments. This will be a field day for the microbiologist in me soon on the sweeping rocky terrain of the Negev.

Sometimes when I sit at my kitchen table on my day off reading bad news about our warming planet, rising nationalism and rampant violence in the newspaper I worry that we may not make it as a species. But being an analog astronaut in a team of professionals hailing from hugely diverse backgrounds gives me great hope. When we work together, future generations can succeed in overcoming boundaries, differences and animosities to build a world where everybody can live in peace. Looking at my kids, I know we have to try and I’m glad I get to work on something that might someday have a profound impact on our future as a spacefaring race.

In a few years, an astronaut’s visor is not going to close in the Negev desert but on a Mars plain or valley.  As I watch that historical moment on television with my family and friends I’ll be proud to have helped make it happen, and will look back with wonder at the unexpected turn of events that led me to become an astronaut.

To be continued…  

Illustration showing Anika at work is by Cambridge-based artist Naomi Davies.