'The question is: how can we do better next time?'

What drives the vet? Marion Koopmans and her international team are working to develop the ultimate crystal ball

Virologist Marion Koopmans has had broad horizons since she was a child. She grew up in a small village in Limburg, but was already sure she wanted to study veterinary medicine in Utrecht. Her horizons kept expanding after graduation. She gained new insights in Asia, America and Africa. Today, she is an internationally renowned expert in her field, heads the department of Viroscience at Erasmus Medical Centre and advises the government on national COVID policy in her capacity as a member of the Outbreak Management Team. Her background as a veterinarian continues to pay dividends to this day.

Portret van Marion Koopmans
Marion Koopmans. Image: Guido Benschop

How much does your background as a veterinarian influence your work as a virologist? 

'If you're examining a cow, your first question is: what's the problem? Next, you need to find out: what about the other animals in the herd, have there been any changes in terms of the group or the feed? That broad approach offers a great basis for the research I do today.

'New infections also tend to originate from animals. Human medicine education revolves around people. The focus is on recovery and healing. Veterinary medicine is much more focused on prevention. The challenge lies in bridging those two worlds, and I'm in a great position to do that now.'

How do you look back on your student days?

'I knew I wanted to study veterinary medicine from a very early age. A whole new world opened up for me when I arrived in Utrecht. It was a huge step, coming from a small village in Limburg. The transition obviously wasn't easy, but I enjoyed my time at university. I also had the opportunity to do all sorts of extracurricular activities at the International Veterinary Student Association, which was great. I also did theatre, played a lot of sports and was interested in art. All those new people and experiences, I really loved it.'

Why did you take up virology after that?

'I wanted to be a farm animal veterinarian. After I graduated, I had the opportunity to specialise in internal diseases and nutrition. A spot opened up on a six-year programme that trains you to be a specialist. We got to see unique cases from across the country. Still, I wanted more of a challenge. I wanted to know how the diseases developed, to understand the pathogenesis.'

“Professor Breukink of Internal Medicine introduced me to professor Horzinek [one of the Netherlands' leading pioneers in the field of virology, ed.]. He offered me a PhD position. I was trained in fundamental virology, which was really useful. It introduced me to all the aspects of the profession, which I didn't know much about as a veterinarian.

Fundamental virology really knocked me into shape. I didn't know much about the subject as a veterinarian.

Can you tell us about some of your formative moments?

'I did a work placement at the National Dairy Development Board in India as part of my studies. It was all focused on increasing livestock production levels. As a veterinarian, I would travel around the region advising farmers. I would visit people with one or two malnourished buffaloes. I'd just look at them and think to myself: 'I can't tell you to feed your animals more if you don't have anything to feed them with. I realised it was about the bigger picture. That really changed my outlook, and I started to take an interest in public health.

'My time at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta in America also really made a mark. We were focusing on fundamental research, epidemiology and clinical issues at the same time. That broad approach is really inspiring and taught me a lot about translating research results into clinical applications.'

You also won the Machiavelli Award for your efforts to make scientific research more accessible to a broad audience. Does that inspire you as well?

'That definitely interests me, I've known that since I was working in veterinary medicine. You would rotate between clinic duty and taking calls. The phone shifts really tied everything together. The results of our patient examinations, the patients' health issues, the lab work, providing explanations to patient owners. I enjoyed that the most, to be honest.'

So how did the COVID pandemic affect you professionally?

'We've been working all out and devoting all our resources to COVID for two years now. It hasn't dramatically changed my day-to-day work, because we were already pretty focused on this field before the pandemic. However, we have been re-labelling a lot of research projects. I also obviously work for the OMT and Health Council and almost all of my international activities are focused on the pandemic.'

While we know that many infections originate from animals, we usually don't start taking action until people get sick

Who or what inspires you?

'I really enjoy working on issues with people who have completely different perspectives and backgrounds. That really highlights the limitations of your own thinking and your own discipline. It enriches the way you look at the world and think about things.'

'Our new research centre, where we prepare for pandemics, is based around the same principle. We connect virology researchers with researchers preparing for other kinds of disasters, like technical engineers from Delft University of Technology. They're dealing with issues like flooding and rising sea levels. While the issues and approaches might differ, we are all dealing with the same questions: 'How can you predict disasters, what tools do you have at your disposal, how do you prepare?' Discussing issues with people from other fields opens up new dialogues and questions. That forces you to ask yourself: 'What do I really know?' That's really inspiring.'

What are your ambitions for the future?

'I want to improve our predictive abilities. We're still in the middle of a pandemic, but we also know it won't be the last. How can we make sure we do better next time? While we know that many infections originate from animals, we usually don't start taking action until people get sick. That's unfortunate, because there's a lot to be gained from prevention. What sorts of problems can you see coming in advance? What factors does that depend on? And: can you identify them more effectively using smart detection methods? That's one of the issues I'll be focusing on in an international consortium: VEO, an observatory for emerging infectious diseases. I'm also working on a book with my son.'

How did you end up writing a book together? 

'My son has an entirely different background, he studied English literature and has a Master's in Anthropology. He's currently interviewing me for a book. It's about the infectious disease outbreaks I've dealt with around the world over the course of my career. We want to figure out what we can learn from them and whether evaluating those events can help us understand how pandemics work. I really enjoy that process.'