Because the government asked Sijbesma to be a special corona envoy, over the past few weeks he has been busy arranging corona tests. Not an easy job, despite being the ‘most influential Dutch person’. The former student (Sijbesma studied Microbiology in Utrecht and Business Administration in Rotterdam) advocates anchoring the lessons from the crisis firmly in the education system. “As far as I’m concerned, universities – alongside their tasks in education and research – should be more engaged in the social debate, also where this crisis is involved.”

Feike_sijbesma crop 2 – wikimedia commons ermindo armino
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ermindo Armino

The two universities that you have a special connection to have discovered an antibody that may lead to a cure for Covid-19. Do you believe that we will be rid of corona within six months and, as the corona envoy, will you be making sure that we are first in line when a vaccine is released?

“I can’t judge whether this will be the treatment we are all waiting for. Apart from that, there are still lots of vaccines currently under development that I am also looking into on behalf of the cabinet, but I’m not sure if they will be available within six months. We want to use the vaccines for billions of people, so they have to be extremely safe. We are not going to experiment on healthy people. Where medicine is concerned, there’s another risk factor that needs weighing up, because you use it on sick people, sometimes even on very sick people.

“It would be preferable to make vaccines and medicines available to other vulnerable groups in other countries; I am also thinking of Africa. I do think that we have a moral obligation not to think just about ourselves. If we had a vaccine that was not available to all Dutch people at the same time, we would give priority to those vulnerable groups. You can also pursue that line of thinking on an international level. If the vulnerable are given priority in the Netherlands, why should that not be applicable internationally?”

What are your thoughts on the face mask discussion of the past few weeks?

“The fact that we are talking about an exit from the lockdown generally means that things are going well. The question is, how can we keep it that way? In the case of face masks, it is all about the inside and the outside of the mask. The outside protects you from anyone who is infected. This is indispensable in healthcare and hospitals, for example, since doctors and nurses work with people who have corona.

“The inside of a face mask protects others from you if you happen to have the virus without being aware of it. Because if you are sick, you have to stay at home. By wearing a face mask, you become a socially aware person who protects your fellow human beings. Opponents criticise that the masks are not watertight. True, but they potentially block up to 50 percent of the virus and that is already a major plus point.”

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Erasmus TV on testing for the coronavirus, working with China and tips for students who fear for the future

RSM alumnus Feike Sijbesma is the special envoy corona for the Dutch government. One of…

There was a lot of talk about the availability of tests. The Dutch position on this seemed more restrained than in neighbouring countries. Based on your international experience, how do you view the Dutch approach?

“Two issues are involved here. One is a question of what you will do with all those tests. If we get everyone to take a blood test now and 95 percent do not have any antibodies, what do we do with those results? Imagine that 70 percent do have antibodies, then perhaps you could adopt a more targeted policy: You must go to work, but you are not allowed to go to work. If you are only doing tests and do not roll out a revised policy, then you have merely satisfied your curiosity. It may sound logical, but it does not serve the public interest. The other test, the throat test, indicates whether you have the virus right at that moment. This one is of vital importance: From June onwards, we will be carrying out almost one million tests per month.

“Moreover, diagnostics are generally becoming increasingly valuable in healthcare. The more we test, the more targeted the treatments can become. The Netherlands has traditionally shown a degree of pragmatism in this area. This is a good thing. But thanks to effective diagnostics, you can in many cases often change your treatment policy and, for example, prescribe much more precise medication instead of a broad spectrum of antibiotics.

“The Netherlands quickly saw that there was a shortage of tests. That was a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. All the test manufacturers had to deal with excessive demand, most of them ten to twenty times above their normal capacity. That influenced their ability to scale up. In that case, a manufacturer is not going to first deliver to a country that is not actually using a lot of tests. Therefore, we were certainly not standing at the front of the queue. In June, we will be testing every Dutch person who has symptoms. That is a very generous testing policy.”

How did you manage to pull that off?

“It was an incredibly complex undertaking. You need swabs, and these had to come in part from the north of Italy, which is not the most ideal region to regularly travel to at this time. Then you must be able to administer the tests (soon to be one million per month) at, for example, the Dutch Municipal Health Centres (GGDs). In addition, we need laboratories. At first, there were three, then thirty, and now fifty – which had to arrange both the necessary equipment and personnel. We then had to buy the tests, which we source from as many as 20 separate suppliers and which entail 30 different types of equipment, all of which needed configuring. Finally, we had to redirect the order flows to the laboratories where the virus turned up. Last but not least, if any tests are positive, you need the GGDs to research into source and contact tracing.

“We had to scale up that whole chain and organise it in a different way. This cannot be done by tough or shrewd negotiations, but rather by showing understanding for someone else’s world. For instance, for suppliers such as Roche. What does help is the world that I came from: We speak each other’s language. You can get angry at your suppliers, but that’s pointless. You are better off working together. Being too clever or putting extra pressure on them results in what I call ‘war stories.’ They may sound exciting, but do not always lead to the desired result.

“This also holds true for all the tales claiming that we could have scaled up the number of tests a lot sooner. We really had to sort the wheat from the chaff. Not all tests and suppliers are uniformly reliable and are sometimes not even validated by the RIVM (Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, ed). Some of the institutions that felt that they had been bypassed sought out the media. The social, public and political pressure that engulfs this topic can sometimes make this work problematic. At times it was downright pandemonium.”

How do you view the role of universities in these times of corona?

“I think that universities have done some surprisingly good work on remote lectures and exams within a very short period. I also notice this in my sons (the oldest is studying economics at the EUR, the youngest Molecular Life Sciences in Utrecht, ed).  Students and staff have also been affected by the corona crisis. Students ended up sitting around at home, were subjected to exams at home and have had to learn how to work online. Of course, incredible work is also being done in the realm of science.”

Do I hear a ‘but’ coming up next?

“No, more of an ‘and’, because I think universities ought to speak out more often in the public debate. How do we solve this kind of crisis, what is our social responsibility? How do we do that collectively: in the Netherlands, in Europe, in the world? Are we pleased that we have such a globalised world from which so many people have managed to benefit, albeit not all people or countries? It would be a shame not to pass these lessons from the crisis on to our students or neglect to do any further research into them. Universities should speak out more openly about what is happening in society. This debate is far too important to just be left to politics.”

Do you think the university is too disengaged at the moment?

“In my opinion, the university’s role can be divided into three tasks: education, science, and social responsibility and engagement. This crisis is so huge that there has to be implications for all studies. The idea of ‘learning lessons’ must become entrenched in the core curriculum for years to come.”

In your estimation, how significant will the impact of the corona crisis be on the economy?

“Many people want to go back to the world of January 2020 as soon as possible: a restart. However, I think we also need to think about a reset. Considering the vast amount of money that we are now spending to overcome this crisis, we certainly need to think about how we want to restructure society. This applies not just to sustainability and climate, but also to the mutual dependence that we have created.”

Running a business or running a country are two very distinct things. Are there any similarities? What have you noticed about the style of leadership in politics?

“You can organise a company, especially amid a crisis, in a more rigid, more militaristic manner and less as a polder model, so that you can move in one direction a bit more easily. Even at DSM, with a turnover of 10 billion euros and 25,000 people in 200 locations, the way of working was complex – but a lot less so than it is inside government. You only get slightly distracted as there is a hierarchical model, i.e., that of your own private company. It’s only when scandals crop up, or if, for instance, salaries are at stake, that you then get to deal with the outside world.

“The government, the public domain, and therefore also corona all belong to everyone. There is a whole backdrop of opinions and vested interests; consequently a crisis like this is much trickier for politicians to manage. What I see is that ministries are more akin to policy machines rather than executive machines, but now there is a lot of executive pressure which is unbelievably demanding and difficult. But I also have a lot of admiration for how hard the various ministries are currently working.”

You studied Medical and Molecular Biology in Utrecht and Business Administration in Rotterdam. To what extent have these studies made you who you are today?

“The world of microbiology, at both the molecular and the cellular level, will always be of exceptional interest to me and will undoubtedly come in handy in this crisis. I have learned a lot from Business Administration in Rotterdam, but probably the most important thing is that behind every question you ask, there is always another one: Why? This is a question you can ask often and can keep on asking. It broadens your insights.

“As a student, the fact that you should constantly ask ‘why’ was an eye-opener for me. ‘Why, why, why, why’: That is a question that you could ask four times practically; and because of that, you understand more and more clearly what you are actually doing, what you are not doing and what you conceivably could have done differently. Before I started studying business administration, I tended to accept things just as they were. This insight has enriched and helped me tremendously in my job at DSM and in what I am doing now as well. Why are there not enough tests in the Netherlands? That is the question you need to ask in order to find out why manufacturers say that there are definitely not enough tests in the Netherlands.”

Which question concerns you the most in this corona crisis?

“It’s not a question, it’s an observation: The more vulnerable we actually are, the more extraordinarily dependent we are. For years, there was talk that infectious diseases would one day be a thing of the past. As a biologist, I never believed that, and now I see how vulnerable we are. When it comes to antibiotics and generic medicines, you would think that we would have stockpiled plenty of these supplies, right? The answer is that we are heavily dependent on countries like China and India. That makes us extremely vulnerable.

“The corona crisis also lays bare the question as to what degree we are united as a society, nationally as well as internationally. To what extent is it a case of every man for himself? Ultimately, it is also a matter of what the goal of an economy is. In my mind, the goal is to be able to live happily with each other, with your own family and friends. I do not think anyone should be denied that opportunity. That is what I am striving for – for the whole world – both at DSM and in my current roles.”