“L’odeur de la pandémie”: The scent of pandemia?

Alix Spahn


The pungent, ticklish smell of disinfectant became a routine part of the laboratory center’s entrance procedure. This is one of the little hints in the empty hallways that other people must be present. Since 12th of March 2020 most of the university’s facilities in Norway are closed, with students and employees compelled to work from home. The outbreak of the viral-caused respiratory infection COVID-19 now dominates our daily life. We are witnesses to an exceptional state never seen: the world standing still.

Facing the upcoming challenges for the health care system, such as the increasing need for intensive care and medical supplies, the government addresses various approaches to control the SARS-CoV-2 spread. As part of the St. Olavs hospital in Trondheim, our laboratory center is one link between clinical application and research. Even now, in times of physical distancing, social and scientific exchange remains essential. Without communication, our mental health and progress in research, would suffer. Still, face-to-face contact is limited.

Even though the daylight finally wins the fight against the never-ending winter nights, the Norwegian streets remain empty. On my way to the hospital a fresh breeze makes me think of the incoming spring—bittersweet as none of my family and friends will be able to visit me here to share the beauty of this country. I file these thoughts away as I cross paths with an other researcher on the way to the laboratories.

“We will run the final tests on the weekend!” he says, brimming with enthusiasm. He is part of a small group of creative and highly motivated scientists, who, in one week, developed a new large-scale testing method for COVID-19 suspected cases. The rapid availability of a high test number is an important tool to monitor the spread of SARS-CoV-2. I feel very proud to be working in an institution whose research can directly helping society in these dark days. Hopefully, my research project, which investigates the innate immune response to a different viral respiratory infection, will one day help to bring us closer to an antiviral treatment.

After implementing the minimum measures in the laboratory to complete a long-term experiment, I walk back to the house I share with four other PhDs since moving to Norway. In the middle of book piles, copies of scientific publications, and laptop chargers, there is our kitchen table, covered with homemade Italian and Spanish dishes. Preparing food is the highlight of a day. My roommates, who I first met two month ago, invite me to a virtual dinner with their friends. Talking to people over the laptop and phone screens, while they are sitting in their kitchens in Norway, England, Italy, Spain and Germany, has started to feel normal. While eating the handmade Gnocchi in tomato sauce, I wonder how long before the scent of disinfectant stops tickling my nose?

Alix Spahn is a German PhD based in Norway