A journey into a world you have never known: A COVID-19 diary from a young virologist in Austria.
“As Franklin P Jones said, experience is the marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.
What has happened with the spread of SARS-CoV must not be allowed to happen again …”
(Zhong N, Zeng G. 2006, BMJ.;333(7564):389–391.)
January 23, 2020
Wuhan is under lockdown. As a new member of the Bergthaler Lab interested in antiviral immune responses and chronic viral hepatitis, I am participating in the Kick-off Meeting of INITIATE, a network to train young researchers in antiviral immunometabolism. We are having exciting discussions on viruses, even coronaviruses—all without knowing that the world as we know it will change in the blink of an eye, for years to come.
February 23, 2020
I was born in Hungary after the collapse of the communist regime. My life was built on belief in the future. Part of our culture in Europe is trust. Trust that we orchestrate our own lives, and that circumstances will allow us to become whatever we want to be, if we work hard enough for it. That, unlike my grandmother, I can choose my path and there is nothing to threaten the world, as I know it. I can only explain my blind optimism during these early days with this belief.
In the last three days, almost 150 COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in Northern Italy. I still believed that, with strict quarantine measures, we would win over this virus and will later discuss the success story of how we eradicated SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2. Little did I know that it would become a very different kind of success story: the story of the virus that made it! While Wuhan appeared to be winning its battle, by reducing the number of newly confirmed infections to double digits, in Europe, it was the calm before the storm.
February 25, 2020
Austria confirmed the first two cases of COVID-19. A picture of a random guy in Tyrol wearing a gas mask while buying entire pallets of instant noodles went viral on the internet. That day, I stopped believing. On the weekend, we were dancing like it was our last party. And it was. For who knows how long.
March 10, 2020
10,149 confirmed cases in Italy next door. This quickly escalated. Austria, counting 182 cases, only now suspends all travels from Italy. Events are getting cancelled to slow down the pace of spreading of the virus. The marathon has started. Birds are chirping on my balcony in the morning sunshine, not afraid to face the unknown.
March 13, 2020
All seminars are cancelled. Schools, shops, bars and restaurants are closing, and we are asked to stay home. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, tomorrow becomes uncertain. Austria was early in implementing these measures, with only 504 confirmed cases in the country. This served as a good example for other nations, and, along with restrictions about leaving home announced on March 15th, excessive testing and the cooperation of Austrians, these measures proved effective in the short term. From around 1,000 confirmed cases at the beginning of the curfew, Austria needed 16 days to exceed 10,000 on April 1st, while Spain achieved the same increase in 8, Italy in 10, France in 11, and Switzerland in 13 days. Due to these measures, we managed not to overwhelm the healthcare system in the spring of 2020, never exceeding 9200 active COVID-19 cases at a time.
April 4, 2020
Three weeks of home office, zero hugs and zero mouse intravenous injections. Instead, nine online meetings, an exponentially increasing time spent looking at exponential curves, tons of questions that I answered about seasonality, clinical trials, masks or drugs, and countless papers read about SARS coronaviruses… On this beautiful spring day, Austria finally counted fewer diseased persons than the day before.
April 6, 2020
The long-awaited good news is announced by the government. Reopening of shops after Easter. I feel very focused and emotionally stable these days, but reading this, I am not sure whether to laugh or cry. We won the battle, but not the war. Austria is now ready to restart after the frozen spring of 2020. With compulsory masks and discipline, can we save lives and the economy at the same time?
I believe that although our world has changed in the blink of the eye, and uncertainty is the new black, we cannot lose the trust we grew up with. It is what makes our society run. Trust that there will be toilet paper in the shop tomorrow. Trust that decision makers do their best, and that following the rules is for the sake of all of us. Trust that others also understand this and follow the rules. We need this trust because pointing fingers and making up conspiracy theories will not bring us any further. We are all together in this.
I can be grateful, even if it comes with sacrifices, to witness the unique times when epidemiology is day-to-day life and not textbook knowledge.
Zsofia Keszei is a Hungarian PhD based in Austria