ETH professor appointed new head of the Science Task Force

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Martin Ackermann is the new head of the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task For

Martin Ackermann is the new head of the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force. (Photograph: Ethan Oelman)

During the coronavirus pandemic the government is relying more than ever on scientific expertise and has set up the "Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force" in response to the crisis. In August the Task Force will have a new mandate and a new Chair: Martin Ackermann, Professor of Molecular Microbial Biology at ETH Zurich and Head of Eawag’s Environmental Microbiology Department.

ETH News: Mr Ackermann, how did your appointment as Chair of the National Science Task Force come about?
Martin Ackermann: When I was asked as Vice-chair whether I wanted to take over the post of Chair, I was glad to accept as I’m convinced that the Task Force plays an important and effective role. It numbers around 70 scientists - including 12 colleagues from ETH Zurich - all of whom are volunteering their services free of charge in order to help getting Switzerland through this crisis as smoothly as possible. It’s a privilege to be head of such a network, and particularly given the unique situation I’m obviously approaching the task with an enormous amount of respect. I’m also glad that we have learned an incredible amount over the past months. For example, how to work most effectively with the various authorities. We can definitely build on this.

The coronavirus crisis has calmed down in Switzerland. Why is the Task Force is still needed?
We still haven’t mastered the crisis. Now we need to think about how we not only contain the crisis, but actually solve it in the long term. Which strategy should Switzerland develop and implement over the coming months? This question is not being discussed enough in my opinion, and this is precisely where the Task Force comes in - in a strategy paper (German only) we focus on the most important issues to be addressed from a scientific perspective.

And what would you like to see the Task Force focus on?
There are three key points: first, the question of how we keep the current situation well under control. In concrete terms this means we must find the least painful measures in order to keep virus infection rates low. Second, it’s important for us to continuously analyse and evaluate new findings and incorporate them into a strategy. For example, we now have a much better understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted and so we are able to prevent infection more effectively. Third, we need to start collating the most important lessons for Switzerland learned from previous months. The goal is to find solutions for the current crisis and be better prepared for the next one.

In its new strategy paper, the Task Force clearly puts a very strong emphasis on economic aspects - why is that?
We have noticed that the public discussion often tends to focus on a perceived trade-off between the effects on the economy and on health. This analysis is based on the assumption that only concrete measures weaken the economy, but this idea has turned out to be misguided: the general population’s fear of the coronavirus is causing economic damage as well. In the Task Force we want to better understand these mechanisms. The economy and society as a whole can only recover if we keep the virus under control.

The Task Force has now been given a new mandate as well - What has changed?
Now that the federal government has disbanded its Crisis Commission, there is a much more direct link between the Task Force and the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH). Regular meetings are planned where we have the chance to review the latest findings as well as the open questions on both sides. This should enable us to respond more quickly. Another important point: we have agreed on more effective data sharing, which is essential given that meaningful research requires a solid data base.

Your predecessor Matthias Egger had a prominent public profile and occasionally also criticised the action of the authorities - Will you be taking a similar line?
I was very impressed by what Matthias Egger accomplished in setting up the Task Force - I think he was exactly the right man for the job at the right time. But the past few months have been incredibly intense and exhausting, and so I perfectly understand his desire to devote himself once again to his duties at the SNSF. To answer your question: I always thought it was wonderful that many of the Task Force members are well known in the media through their high level of expertise in individual fields. In the media I will represent the Task Force’s overall view. I get the impression, for example, that the population’s acceptance of the measures taken has tailed off a little, so it may well be that more people want to hear the Task Force’s opinion on individual points.

And what happens if your view differs from the FOPH?
That’s a good thing! If there’s one lesson we have learned from the coronavirus crisis, it’s that we can only solve problems by working together. Having different opinions and a healthy exchange of views is absolutely vital in such a unique situation, otherwise it might be possible to move too far in one direction or another. The Task Force therefore cooperates closely with the authorities and then communicates its opinions and arguments to the general public as well.

What’s your general assessment of how well Switzerland is coping with the pandemic?
By all pulling together we have got through this crisis together comparatively well so far. We are all delighted to have managed to bring the number of infections down so low, and despite a recent spike, rates now seem to be stabilising again. It is much easier and less expensive to keep the epidemic under control when infection rates are low than if they are high. We are now in a phase where we need to consider where we go from here. Key for me is the belief that we can successfully beat this crisis by working together.

About the new head of the Task Force

Martin Ackermann was born in Schwyz in 1971 and grew up in Zofingen. He studied Biology at the University of Basel and completed his PhD. in 2002 with a dissertation on ageing processes in bacteria. After his PhD he worked for two years as a postdoc at UC San Diego. Martin Ackermann joined ETH Zurich as a researcher in 2004 and has been associate professor since 2015. He heads the research group studying the ecology of microbial systems at ETH Zurich and Eawag. His group investigates how microorganisms interact with each other and with the environment, and how they affect each other as a result. He is married and has two school-age children.

Franziska Schmid