VITAL is vital! A Blog by Debbie van Baarle

I look back at a few strange months. Working mostly from home, using digital platforms for meetings, my mailbox hitting the roof each day, trying to do home schooling for the kids, find a place in the house I could actually work in peace, seeing only a few colleagues, having no social activities and taking nature walks to keep both body and mind in balance. It has been a hectic and dynamic time in which we have learned a lot on how to work from home, but also on the importance of social interaction. For the VITAL project this COVID-19 pandemic has stressed the fact that the project is highly relevant and also brought some of us back to what our work is all about: mitigating this pandemic and protecting those at risk.

As the academic scientific lead of the VITAL project, I initiated a consortium that submitted a proposal for the IMI2 round centered on vaccination programs for elderly. From the moment I saw the call for proposals I knew this was what my research was meant for. I spent many years characterizing the response, and especially T cell response, against viral infections, the major cell type able to eradicate virus-infected cells and the responsible arm of the immune system lowering disease progression and severity of disease. Although I gained a lot of knowledge, there was never a true social impact I could make with the research. This is exactly what VITAL brings: we will bring the scientific knowledge that the project will gather to the people who need it most, older adults, and prevent infectious diseases at older age by developing novel vaccination schemes. Although several vaccines are offered for preventing infectious diseases in older adults, the vaccinations desperately need to be tailored to this heterogenous group of individuals and selection of those strategies that fit the target group best (with respect to urgency as well as preventing of the major disease burden) should be communicated in a proper way to the target group. I am in the lucky position to initiate research into accomplishing this with the most motivated people in Europe covering the many disciplines needed to do this.

As I am a dedicated and ambitious researcher as well as a compassionate manager I set high standards for the projects output. At the same time making sure we do this in a good vibrant working environment. I am proud that together with my GSK co-lead Bo Standaert and the wonderful team that supports us, we have established this good atmosphere of working together and have been able to be successful in the first year of the project. Although the first half of the second year was affected by the new coronavirus outbreak, we managed to keep up most of the work and tried to work around lock-downs, coming up with alternatives for studies that needed to be paused, including the clinical vaccination study. This period has taught us to be flexible and communicate in different ways, which will definitely benefit the VITAL project for the coming years. I very much look forward to embark on novel terrain and retrieve results that will lead to significant impact for the elderly, the population so much in need of protection against infectious diseases.