Marion Koopmans appearing on Radio 1, Marion Koopmans as a guest on TV, Marion Koopmans in NRC Handelsblad. And the same story for Ab Osterhaus, former head of the Erasmus MC’s Viroscience department: since the arrival of the pandemic, these researchers have become a fixture of the Dutch media. In these uncertain times, a mass of Dutch viewers and listeners are turning to Rotterdam virologists for explanations.

Of course, television appearances shouldn’t be taken as a benchmark of quality, but the Rotterdam department is also recognised as an important source of input by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Dutch government. And in scientific terms, it ranks as one of the leading institutions worldwide. It has been recognised with a number of awards, including an NWO Stevin Prize in 2018. How did they get there? Four keys to success.

Nic Masurel: exceptionally talented; exceptionally modest

Nic Masurel, the first head of the Rotterdam virology department. Image credit: Collectie Erasmus MC Erfgoed

It all started in 1971. Tucked away in a corner of one of the issues of Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde is a notice: ‘change of address’. In it, one ‘N. Masurel’ writes: “In consultation with the State Secretary of Social Affairs and Public Health and the Director-General of the World Health Organisation in Geneva, the WHO’s National Influenza Centre (…) has been moved to Medische Faculteit Rotterdam as of 1 May 1971.”

“The establishment of the Virology department in Rotterdam can be traced back to the Leiden-trained virologist Nic Masurel,” says Mart van Lieburg, the Erasmus MC’s resident medical historian. Masurel was a very modest man, and was hardly a born lecturer, but as a researcher, he was one of the best in the world. “He obtained his doctorate in Leiden in 1957. His research was an absolute world-class publication and established him as one of the best in his field. He demonstrated that different epidemics can be caused by the same pathogen, since viruses are constantly adapting. The pathogen that caused the epidemic of 1956-1957 turned out to be related to that of the Spanish flu.”

Masurel, who so far had worked as a virologist at the University of Leiden – a far more prominent institution in the field – was lured to Medische Faculteit Rotterdam (the precursor of the Erasmus MC) in 1971 by Andries Querido, its founder. Masurel was still planning his move when the decision fell to relocate the WHO’s National Influenza Centre, which until then had also based in Leiden, to the city on the Maas.

Leiden’s medical faculty had been around for far longer, and they had amassed far more expertise in the field of respiratory infections than their colleagues to the south. But Masurel opted for Rotterdam nevertheless. “Rotterdam was a young faculty. And they also had this character and image – of a young, can-do team of people. There was a unique atmosphere: all sorts of things are possible here. This appealed to him,” says Gerard van Doornum, author of a recent book about Dutch virology.

It turned out to be a masterstroke on Querido’s masterstroke: Masurel turned his Rotterdam adventure into a success. In twenty years’ time, the veteran researcher set up his own department with seven full-time staff members, put a clear organisational structure in place at a time when such a thing was rarely encountered, drew the WHO’s national agency to Rotterdam and consolidated his research. In 1991, Masurel retired as a professor, and his successor was chosen by an appointment committee, with Masurel in an advising role.

Rotterdam and animals

Masurel was succeeded by Ab Osterhaus, who originally trained as a veterinarian. And this is by no means an exceptional background for virologists in Rotterdam. Floor Haalboom, who was conferred a doctorate for her research into the treatment of zoonoses in the Netherlands, notes that Rotterdam has a long tradition when it comes to connections between vetinerary science and virology: “This means that for a very long time, Rotterdam has maintained a very broad perspective on viruses and the possible causes of viral infections.”

This tradition actually dates back to before the recognition of virology as a separate field, or the establishment of Medische Faculteit Rotterdam – to the years around 1900. “The veterinarian-bacteriologist Jan Poels was the director of the national serum institute in Rotterdam. This national institute, which had been founded in 1904, focussed on combating and researching cattle diseases. But thanks to Poels’s wide network, its research also extended to human diseases. In 1911, Poels was appointed endowed professor of Applied Bacteriology in Leiden – the second veterinarian in the Netherlands to work at a faculty of Medicine.”

In the 1930s – ‘at that time, the recently-established discipline of virology is seen as very hot’ – several veterinarians in Leiden worked at the virology department of the local Institute for preventative Medicine. They were also closely associated with research conducted at the national serum institute in Rotterdam. Masurel was taught in Leiden. “In 1947, Jacob Dirk Verlinde in Leiden was the third veterinarian in the Netherlands to be offered a Virology professorship at a medical faculty. That was by no means a common thing.”

That Masurel was trained at an institute that also employed a several veterinarians can also be seen in his own research, according to Haalboom. “Masurel obtained a doctorate for a book about the presence of antibodies against swine influenza in human blood. He grew to become a leading proponent of the idea that influenza viruses reach us from the animal world. This Rotterdam tradition of working closely together with veterinary virologists was continued with Osterhaus’s appointment. And it is continued to this day: the current department head, Marion Koopmans, was also trained as a veterinarian.”

Ab Osterhaus, ‘extremely dynamic’, enterprising virologist

In contrast with his predecessor, Ab Osterhaus couldn’t be typified as modest, says Van Doornum. This had its advantages: “During his term, Osterhaus managed to attract a lot of talented people to Rotterdam. Professors Ron Fouchier, Thijs Kuiken, Marion Koopmans and Guus Rimmelzwaan, for example.” Rob Benner, who served on Osterhaus’s appointment committee at the time: “Ab is extremely dynamic. It’s a great experience working with him when you’re a young researcher – you can learn a lot from him. That drew people in.”

Benner remembers how around the time of Masurel’s retirement, they were very interested in recruiting Osterhaus for Rotterdam. “We heard that Osterhaus, who was still working for RIVM at the time, had expressed an interest in Rotterdam – in part thanks to our ties with the WHO. At the time, he already had a wonderful track record at RIVM and had put together a strong team there – so we definitely wanted to have him.”

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A young Ab Osterhaus, the gent responsible for attracting a lot of money and talent to Rotterdam. Image credit: Collectie Erasmus MC Erfgoed

What’s more, he was very inventive when it came to attracting new funding. “While Virology was still a relatively small department under Masurel, Osterhaus managed to expand it to some 80 FTEs. In the 1990s – when various austerity measures had made it difficult to secure a lot of funding – Ab nevertheless managed to tap into sources in the Netherlands and abroad.”

Osterhaus also came into some criticism for his entrepreneurial spirit. At the time of the Mexican flu outbreak in 2009, Osterhaus advised the Dutch government to build a large stock of vaccines. Ultimately, there was no need for the bulk of this supply, and Osterhaus turned out to hold shares in the company that was researching the vaccines. Both the hospital and Osterhaus himself have always denied that he derived any financial benefit from this matter. He was allowed to stay on as professor.

Marion Koopmans: out and about

In 2013 Ab Osterhaus became emeritus professor, and Marion Koopmans became the head of Viroscience Leiden. “She also worked for RIVM for many years, where she mainly focused on epidemiology. That’s also why she was appointed to the Outbreak Management Team (OMT),” says Van Doornum. In addition, Koopmans plays an important role as key adviser to the WHO.

Marion Koopmans, celebrated for her ability to create global networks for the systematic and large-scale control of infectious diseases. Image credit: Rafaël Philippen

Koopmans is celebrated for her ability to create “global networks for the systematic and large-scale control of infectious diseases,” wrote the Dutch Research Council (NWO) in its jury report for the 2018 Stevin Prize, the Netherland’s most prestigious award for knowledge utilisation for the benefit of society. During the ebolavirus crisis of 2015, Koopmans travelled to Africa to set up three mobile laboratories, and she could also be found in South America and the Caribbean at the time of the zikavirus outbreak. In addition, she set up an online database that enables the early detection of infectious diseases worldwide.

That’s also characteristic for the ‘Rotterdam school of virology’, says Benner. “They go out into the world to collect and identify virus samples in the field, across the planet. And they tend to be highly successful in this undertaking because they form a diverse group of scientists, who specialise in different parts of the virology field.” Van Doornum: “During the SARS outbreak of 2003, Rotterdam was the only Dutch virology department to participate in research performed on location. And by the time MERS presented itself [like SARS, another coronavirus, Eds.], Rotterdam had already amassed experience in this area.”

But, says Van Doornum, we shouldn’t turn this into a contest or keep blowing our own horn. “It’s not about Rotterdam outshining Amsterdam, or leading the international field. Collaboration is far more important for the end result than racking up the most citations or drawing in the star players.”

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Microtome from around 1965. This machine made it possible to cut thin slices or slices very accurately, a condition to study specimens under a microscope. The microtome consists of a very sharp knife that is stable and can be moved along the cutting block. This specimen has played a crucial role in research which has contributed to the status ‘Regional Expertise Centre’. Image credit: Collectie Erasmus MC erfgoed