'Understanding viral evolution is critical to manage and prevent novel viral emergences and epidemics'

12 April 2021

On 5 March 2021, researchers Ralf Bartenschlager and Sebastian Lequime received the M.W. Beijerinck Virology Prize and the Beijerinck Premium, respectively. We spoke with the two prize winners and asked how the Beijerinck Prizes will help them in their virological research.

What is your research goal? Why is this important?

Ralf Bartenschlager: 'My overarching goal is to decipher the interaction of RNA viruses with their host cells and to identify commonalities how these viruses exploit the cells to achieve efficient replication. Commonly used host cell factors and pathways will then be studied for suitability as targets for broad-spectrum antiviral drugs.

The ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has shown that we are insufficiently prepared to combat novel viruses that emerge as zoonotic transmissions. One way to tackle this challenge is broad-spectrum antivirals. Although such drugs have been developed for multiple viral infections, they are limited in scope as these drugs only work for infections with a single virus class. However, for future pandemic preparedness we need broad-spectrum antivirals that cover a larger spectrum of viral infections (e.g. a pan-coronavirus inhibitor). Here, host-targeting therapy aiming at the inhibition of host cell factors that many viruses need for their replication is a promising alternative.'

Sebastian Lequime: 'My research explores how viruses evolve, especially the different short-term and long-term constraints, and how they are linked. Viruses, especially RNA viruses, evolve very quickly compared to their hosts, which gives rise to fascinating, sometimes surprising dynamics.

Besides the fundamental knowledge, understanding viral evolution is critical to manage and prevent novel viral emergences, epidemics, drug or vaccine escapes, as recently illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Evolutionary approaches are also key in some of the current tools we use to understand epidemiological processes, a subfield called 'molecular epidemiology (that I present in my outreach videos Vir(Ev)o: virevo.lequimelab.eu). It uses advanced models and statistical tools that will clearly profit from our increased understanding of viral evolutionary processes to deliver even more refined and hopefully useful public health perspectives.'

How will the Beijerinck Prize help you?

Ralf Bartenschlager: 'I will use the prize money to support junior people in my group, who work on this topic in order to facilitate their studies and promote their career. In addition, some of the money will be used to search for host cell factors that are commonly used by viruses across different classes. For instance, we have identified some host cell factors that are required for hepatitis C virus and SARS-CoV-2 replication. While this offers a promising starting point, we have to find more of these host cell factors and for this search I will invest some of the money.' 

Sebastian Lequime: 'As a relatively new assistant professor at the University of Groningen, this prize will help me kick-start my research. Additionally, as a new member of the virology community in the Netherlands, obtaining the Beijerinck Premium showcases my research and its quality to other community members who may not know me yet, hopefully sparking some new interactions and collaborations!'

Beijerinck Prizes for virology

The M.W. Beijerinck Virology Prize for an internationally recognised researcher consists of a medal engraved with the image of M.W. Beijerinck and a monetary award of 35.000 euros, to be spent at the winner’s discretion.

The Beijerinck Premium for a young consists of a monetary award of 25.000 euros, to be spent for virus-related research as well as for working visits and conferences abroad.