Virtual symposium: Kazakh and German scientists discuss current issues on Covid-19 and other zoonoses

New findings on the COVID-19 pandemic as well as on the growing spread of orthohantavirus and early summer meningoencephalitis in Germany and Kazakhstan - these were the most important topics of the two-day virtual symposium on 21. and 22. April, which was jointly organised by the Institute of Microbiology of the German Armed Forces (IMB) and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. 

After the opening by the patron of the symposium, Ambassador Dr Tilo Klinner of the German Embassy in Kazakhstan and Ms Zauresh Zhumadilova of the Kazakh Ministry of Health, scientists from the IMB and the Kazakh partner institutes NSCEDI (National Scientific Center for Especially Dangerous Infections), RIBSP (Research Institute for Biosafety Problems) and NCB (National Center for Biotechnology) exchanged views on current surveys and challenges in both countries. About 100 international experts and scientists in biosafety and epidemiology attended the event. 

In both countries - Kazakhstan and Germany - there was a strong learning curve in the institutes involved in SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics, so that diagnostic capacities were quickly strengthened. In Kazakhstan, the protection of laboratory staff and the proper handling of patient samples was identified as a particular priority in order to contain chains of infection. Representatives of the Kazakh institutes reported on special measures in this regard, such as a training programme on handling suspected patients for lay doctors, paramedics and firefighters. 

Less in the media spotlight are the infection risks posed by the Orthohantavirus and TBE in both countries. Recent surveys, including those of the two Kazakh doctoral students who are funded by the German Biosecurity Programme, show a clear increase here. The Orthohantavirus pathogen is found in more and more oblasts in Kazakhstan, which can be seen in a detailed map. Unknown fever symptoms are also repeatedly found in patients in Kazakhstan. Current data may indicate the spread of TBE - an infectious disease that is also spreading in Germany and Western Europe as a result of global warming. 

The active exchange on these and other findings was made possible in particular by the fact that dubbed translation for Russian, German and English was provided by two interpreters. The online format also allowed the participation of experts from Munich, Berlin, Almaty, Nursultan, Tbilisi, the Kazakh provincial cities of Atyrau, Kyzylorda, Uralsk, Shymkent and Taldykorgan, and even Accra in Ghana.

The participants agreed that virtual symposia provide a good exchange platform to maintain joint scientific discussion despite the pandemic between the countries. Dr Toktasyn Yerubayev, Director of the Kazakh partner institute NSCEDI, emphasised that such online formats "not only promote theoretical exchange, but also provide impetus for new scientific methods and capacities" and that the German Biosecurity Programme makes an important contribution to this. "Even if virtual meetings cannot replace face-to-face networking," as Dr Lukas Peintner from the IMB admits, "they offer other advantages, such as the cost-effective participation of many experts from a wide range of countries and remote regions.