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COVID-19: Why is it possible to protect yourself and others by using vaccines and what are the underlying principles?

Pathogens such as viruses have always existed together with mankind. In this interview, Paul Heuschling, cell biologist and full Professor at the Department of Life Sciences and Medicine, explains the process of vaccine development. He elucidates how they can protect us due to immunisation and what are the underlying principles of the new mRNA vaccination technology.

This article was originally published by the University of Luxembourg

By now, several COVID-19 vaccines have been released. How can we be sure that they are working?

The strategies that are used to design any vaccine aim to achieve the highest possible immune outcome. That means, already at a very early stage in development researchers check the immune response of the body and will reject the vaccine if it is not good enough. So, the fact that a vaccine reliably generates an immune response is one of the prerequisites during vaccine development. Since viral protein structures as well as weakened or dead viral particles are typically used for this, the mounted immune response can be expected to be very similar to the one generated by the pathogen itself.

In quantitative terms, the functionality of the vaccine is expressed by its efficacy which is determined in clinical studies. The commonly reported efficacies of more than 90% for most of the COVID-19 vaccines show that they indeed succeed in mounting a specific immune response against SARS-CoV-2.

How is such an immune response generated in the body?

When an immune reaction is generated by the body, it recognises something that the virus exposes – in most cases these are proteins. Proteins are among the most important building blocks of life and can acquire many different shapes and functions. Ultimately, we are also to a large extend made out of various proteins. However, every organism and also viruses have a specific set of proteins with typical patterns and structures that differentiate them. This is why our immune system is able to recognise a viral protein structure, which is also called antigen in this context, as foreign: That protein does not have a shape or constitution that is known or typical for the own body.

Is this also the principle used in vaccine development?

Generally speaking, yes. The traditional way to create a vaccine is to cultivate the virus in the laboratory, harvest it and inactivate its function to infect cells, for example by chemical treatment. What remains are virus particles including viral proteins, that are not harmful to the body anymore, but still can trigger an immune reaction upon injection. This can prime the immune system to the specific pathogen and will induce the production of specific antibodies neutralising the antigens as well as other immune cell reactions. If then in the future a contact with the real virus occurs, the immune system is prepared already and can immediately initiate the production of specific antibodies necessary to fight the virus.

A drawback in this approach of vaccine development is the rather time-consuming process in production and the low throughput. Culturing the virus in the laboratory is not easy and requires some time for the virus to grow and also to treat it afterwards for inactivation. That means producing high amounts of vaccine using this method is challenging and both expensive and time-consuming.

Which other approaches exist to develop a vaccine?

Instead of injecting inactivated viral particles, it is also possible to produce parts of a viral protein directly inside the human cell by introducing the blueprint for that particular antigen. This approach is commonly used in vaccinations against tuberculosis, for example. A part of the genetic information of the pathogen is introduced into a carrier-vessel, typically an adenovirus. That virus which normally causes a form of common cold in some primates, is also modified so that it cannot cause disease anymore. As a result, only in a defined area cells of our body are infected: The vessel delivers the genetic material of the virus in these cells and they then produce desired antigen, which triggers the immune system. The advantage is that the adenovirus containing the blueprint for the antigen can easily be produced in the lab while at the same time it cannot cause an infection. The vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 developed by AstraZeneca and the Russian Gam-COVID-Vac, also known as Sputnik V, use this approach.

However, since several years a new technology was developed which bypasses the use of an adenovirus as a carrier vessel: Instead of introducing the blueprint into this adenovirus, it is contained in small lipid droplets as mRNA, a short-lived genetic blueprint which is chemically different from our genomic DNA. Like in the case of the adenovector-based vaccines, this genetic material can enter the cell and serve as a blueprint to produce the viral antigen. This new technology is used in the two vaccines by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna and allows the production of comparably large amounts of vaccine. It should be stressed that the mRNA technology has been developed already since around a decade and SARS-CoV-2 only by incident happens to be the target of the first approved mRNA vaccine. It is very likely that other mRNA-based medications will soon be available as well and might bring great progress to medicine.

Isn’t it dangerous to inject genetic material into a cell?

First of all, we should remember that this is exactly what happens upon a viral infection, including the common cold: The virus introduces its genetic material into our cells and uses the machinery of the cell to generate complete and therefore infectious copies of itself. So, the new mRNA technology as well as the long-known adenovirus-based vaccines make use of the same principle while only inducing the production of a non-infectious antigen inside the cell. The most important difference is that only a small and harmless piece of the virus, one particular part of a protein, is produced. Therefore, no infection can occur or affect other cells.

Second, the injected mRNA contains a genetic signal that a protein should be produced from it, also indicated by the ‘m’ which stands for messenger. RNA is fundamentally different from DNA which resides in the nucleus of our cells and does not get close to this mRNA. At the same time, also our own cells all the time make hundreds of different mRNAs to produce the proteins which ensure the vital functions of our cells. In other words, as our own cells anyways constantly produce proteins from many different mRNAs, there is no reason to assume any danger from this technology.

Finally, RNA generally is quite fragile. This is also one of the reasons why some of these vaccines need to be stored at very cold temperatures as low as -80°C to ensure the efficacy of the vaccine. After the injection, the RNA is typically degraded within hours and thus does not have any long-term impact, while this time is still sufficient to produce the antigen and trigger the immune system’s response.

How can it be that a vaccine against a previously unknown virus was developed so fast?

First of all, it is important to know that the SARS-CoV-2 is not the first coronavirus we encounter. We have learned a lot from the previous appearance of the SARS-1 and the MERS coronavirus, not to forget the several other types of coronaviruses causing mild infections each year, such as the common cold. Therefore, we knew the basic building blocks of this type of virus and the best leverage points for a vaccine. Also, several scientific groups worldwide focused on research on coronaviruses during the past years and readily shared their knowledge with others.

In addition to that, often a limiting factor for scientific development is the availability of resources and money. As governments and stakeholders quickly realised the threat caused by this virus, all efforts have been merged to provide any financial support required. And as unfortunately many people were rapidly infected with the virus, in turn also volunteers for clinical studies could easily be identified. At the same time, all tests and protocols to assess and determine the safety of the vaccine were kept in place. A fast and efficient exchange with the health and drug authorities additionally helped to accelerate the process. That means no tests were skipped and the COVID-19 vaccines can be expected to be as safe as any other vaccine on the market.

What would happen if we had no vaccine available?

Well, this somehow would resemble the natural process: If a virus runs free within a population, some individual will eventually become immune after an infection whereas the disease will have more severe consequences or can even be lethal for others. This would continue until a certain percentage of the population is immune, which is estimated to be around 70%. At such a turning point, the virus statistically could not be transmitted to enough susceptible individuals and thus the infection would decay.

However, until we reach such a level of herd immunity, we would lose a significant part of our population, especially in the older generation.

With the vaccination being available we do now have the chance to actively increase the overall immunity in society to arrive faster at this turning point – without having to be infected by the real virus. And in quantitative terms, the absolute number of complications such as allergic reaction simply does not compare to the damage the virus does. It is difficult to give exact numbers, but the overall damage caused by the virus without vaccination is several orders of magnitude higher than any potential harm caused by a vaccination.

I therefore can only encourage everyone to get the jab and participate in that societal effort to bring the virus under contro

Paul Heuschling is Full Professor in Cell Biology at the Department of Life Sciences and Medicine at the University of Luxembourg. His research is focused on inflammation of the central nervous system and on glia cells.

This article was originally published by the University of Luxembourg

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Public-private partnership towards green steel

Paul Wurth S.A., a company of SMS group, and the University of Luxembourg have entered into an agreement to create and finance the Paul Wurth Chair in Energy Process Engineering. The partnership supports Luxembourg’s ambition to develop a centre of excellence in fields surrounding the emerging hydrogen economy.
© Photo: Sophie Margue/University of Luxembourg

Hydrogen: A key to future energy systems

The Paul Wurth headquarters in Luxembourg is home to SMS group’s global hydrogen competence centre. Hydrogen is considered a crucial factor in future energy systems and energy transformation and in the transition to greener energy sources. One game-changing solution lies in Power-to-Liquid applications for the production of synthetic fuels and downstream products. Hydrogen also promises to become an alternative to coal – both as a reducing agent in steelmaking and as a driver of the large-scale transformation of the steel industry, which today is a large emitter of CO2.

“We are working on the decarbonisation solutions of tomorrow, with the clear goal of enabling CO2-free steel production.”

Professor Hans Ferkel, CTO of SMS group

he agreement between Paul Wurth and the University of Luxembourg to create and finance the Paul Wurth Chair in Energy Process Engineering ties in closely with this ambition. This cooperation will be instrumental for Paul Wurth to become a global innovation centre for metallurgy and hydrogen within the SMS group and to continue the technology-driven initiatives already started by dedicated taskforces. For the university, the initiative is part of its strategy to develop research and an educational offer with a focus on sustainability.

“We look forward to working closely with the University of Luxembourg and are committed to staying in the lead in the global challenge of making green steel,” comments Professor Ferkel.

Cutting-edge research

The chair will be hosted at the university’s Faculty of Science, Technology and Medicine (FSTM) in the Department of Engineering. It aims to conduct cutting-edge research in the field of hydrogen processing and related aspects of carbon-neutral industrial processes. The team attached to the chair will also engage in teaching at Bachelor, Master and doctoral level. In addition, the chair will participate in outreach activities to stimulate interest in key challenges in the field of engineering.

“The creation of the new chair is well aligned with the university’s research strategy and will contribute to the development of the university’s Department of Engineering, in particular in the area of process engineering and hydrogen processing,” says Professor Stéphane Pallage, Rector of the University of Luxembourg. “It will enhance our international visibility, contribute to academic excellence and make a lasting impact on the academic and industrial landscape of Luxembourg,”

“The new chair builds on an existing long-term cooperation between Paul Wurth and the University, in particular in Bachelor and Master teaching as well as the Hydrogen Think-tank initiated within the Department of Engineering. It will be a catalyst for new research activities related to the future hydrogen economy which is important to industry and to the economy in Luxembourg and beyond,” states Professor Jean-Marc Schlenker, Dean of the FSTM.

About Paul Wurth: With more than 1 700 employees and entities in around 20 countries, Paul Wurth is a leading market player for the design and construction of complete blast furnace and coke oven plants. Developing and implementing environmental technologies is a priority for the company.

This article was originally published by the Luxembourg Trade & Invest

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University of Luxembourg opens a new Master of Data Science

Starting September 2021, the University of Luxembourg will offer a new Master of Data Science. Based on a multidisciplinary approach, the Master’s programme will train students in data analysis, modelling and management, and prepare them to work in areas as artificial intelligence (A.I), cloud computing, machine and statistical learning or big data.
© Stockphotosecrets

Innovative and interdisciplinary programme

The Master of Data Science, which will be hosted at the Faculty of Science, Technology and Medicine (FSTM), will train carefully selected students in a multidisciplinary approach. The Master’s programme will build on existing synergies between the University’s disciplines and two of its research centres, the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine and the Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust. Teaching and research activities will be led by renowned academics and researchers from Luxembourg and abroad, who will guide students through the many techniques of data science. In parallel, invited industry experts will help students solve industry-related problems.

“The Master’s programme covers many aspects of data science, including data mining, data processing, data visualisation, statistical modelling and database management. Particular emphasis is placed on machine learning and deep learning techniques and their applications to life sciences, medicine and physics. The pedagogical approaches are varied and based on the practice of data science in each of these disciplines”, explains Prof. Yannick Baraud, course director of the Master.

Prof. Yannick Baraud
© Uni.lu

Data scientist, a unique profile

Data scientists are trained as both mathematicians and computer scientists. This profile makes them the preferred choice for facing the new challenges of the digital transformation.

Data scientists support decision-making, business modelling and innovation, but are also instrumental to provide legally responsible data management, since improperly managed data can easily become a great liability.

“This new programme is an exciting development. It builds on the recent recruitment of excellent researchers in data science, including statistics and machine learning, and will allow the Faculty to better support the Luxembourg economy by attracting and training talented students in this dynamic field”, adds Prof. Jean-Marc Schlenker, dean of the FSTM.

Industrial and commercial data, key economic drivers

As the fourth industrial revolution unfolds, the global economy and the job market are undergoing fundamental changes. As companies embrace digital transformation, as data sets grow in size and complexity and the opportunities linked to smart connected objects evolve, economic players require skilled data scientists. For sectors such as telecommunications, finance, retail or marketing, data experts are a necessity while sectors as agronomy and transport increasingly seek skilled data experts.

The European Data Strategy predicts that in the next four years the European data economy will account for 6% of the EU’s GDP (830 million euros) and that the number of data professionals on its labour market will have risen from 6 million to 11 million.

On the national level, Luxembourg embraces the process of digital transformation, and the Master of Data Science aligns with the country’s strategy and ambition of a digital nation. “Helping to drive digital innovation and development is one of the strategic priorities of the University, both in its research and its teaching activities, states Prof. Stéphane Pallage, rector of the University. “This is in line with our willingness to explore and address the opportunities and challenges created by the digital revolution. The new Master’s programme is an important element in the implementation of our strategy to grow the pool of promising students and highly skilled researchers at the University and in the region.” 

Data science is also one of intensive research. Graduates of the Master will be trained to go beyond the standard data analyses and model programming, to innovate and improve. For graduates entering the job market, the Master will provide a ticket to choose their future career path. For students wishing to continue an academic career, the Master’s training will prepare them to pursue a PhD in mathematics, computer science or computational sciences.

Learn more on the Master of Data Science

This article was originally published by the University of Luxembourg

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Luxembourg ranked 2nd greenest country in the world

Researchers from the US universities Yale and Columbia have ranked the Grand Duchy the second greenest country in world in terms of environmental performance.
Forest and sandstone in the wolf’s gorge canyons of Muellerthal in Luxembourg ©stockphotosecrets

Benchmarking environmental policies and regulations

The 2020 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a joint research project by Yale and Columbia on behalf of the World Economic Forum. It provides a data-driven summary of the state of sustainability around the world. Using 32 performance indicators across 11 issue categories, the EPI ranks 180 countries on environmental health and ecosystem vitality. These indicators provide a gauge at a national scale of how close countries are to established environmental policy targets.
Although not directly focused on COVID-19, the project studies heavily underlying health issues of this pandemic such as unhealthy food consumption, lack of physical activity, air pollution and stress.

Researchers analysed air and water quality, CO2 emissions, waste processing, heavy metals, and other factors of public health.

Luxembourg’s performance

Luxembourg’s score of 82.3 out of 100 put it behind first place Denmark which scored 82.5. The second place finish is also evidenced by the Grand Duchy’s 11.6 points increase in the last 10 years.

The country’s performance stood out in several of the indicators, namely: ecosystem vitality (second place), heavy metal pollution (seventh place) and water resources (ninth place).
Luxembourg, however, has work to do on several other environmental issues such as needing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per capita (164th place) and reducing tree cover loss (ninetieth place).

Greater Region performances:
– France: 5th place with a score of 80.0
– Germany: 10th place with a score of 77.2
– Belgium: 15th place with a score of 73.3

Source: Visual Capitalist
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COVID-19: How can our psychological reactions during this pandemic, and in particular towards the vaccine be explained?

The COVID-19 pandemic imposes a high level of stress on all of us and negatively affects our mental health.
How can our psychological reactions during this pandemic, and in particular towards the vaccine, be explained? Prof. Claus Vögele, Clinical and Health Psychologist at the University of Luxembourg, elucidates peoples’ psychological reactions– and underlines that we do not have to justify our anxieties.

This article was originally published by the University of Luxembourg

What are the effects of the pandemic on mental health and how can a vaccine alleviate them?

Not surprisingly, we have seen an increase in perceived stress, loneliness, anxiety and depression over the last 11 months, in Luxembourg but also globally, as shown in our ongoing survey across 6 European countries. This increase is most certainly a combined effect of the uncertainties caused by a potential or actual SARS-CoV-2 infection and its effects on health, but it can also be influenced by the social distancing measures designed to curb the increasing rates of infection.

The beginning of the vaccination brings hope, for the first time since the start of the pandemic, that we might be able to return to a certain level of normality at some point this year. I would expect this to have a positive effect on how people feel, even before they get the vaccine.

How did the perception of the pandemic and of the measures put in place develop over time?

What we can see in the media these days is an increasing percentage of the population getting tired of the whole situation, which is completely understandable as the pandemic imposes a lot of stress on all of us. In comparison to spring 2020, people are less willing to adhere to the protective rules which were put in place, they have not much patience left. In this context, the availability of vaccines is very good news as it eventually offers the possibility to end all the restrictions that are in place to stop the spread of the disease, at least in the foreseeable future. 

At the same time, we also see that people observe very closely what is happening in politics. The messages that politicians send out have a clearly visible impact on attitudes and behaviours in the population. The pandemic is a very dynamic situation, as a consequence of which messages may have been perceived as contradictory, and this also concerns information on vaccination.

In terms of reaching large parts of the population in the context of a vaccination campaign, it is important for policy makers to understand the complexity of the relationship between emotions and the aim to increase preventive health behaviours. A message intending to increase the perceived social responsibility by taking the vaccine, for example, may backfire by inducing feelings of guilt or shame, which result in the opposite than the intended action.  

Therefore, it is important to acknowledge fears, anger and other negative emotions while at the same time emphasising the stringent safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

Still, quite a few people seem to be concerned about the vaccines. Where could this insecurity on vaccines come from?

The most frequently expressed argument against the COVID-19 vaccines relates to the speed of their development. It is mostly asked how a safe and efficient vaccine can be produced in such a short time whereas vaccine development usually takes up to 10 years. Well, the short answer is: It is possible through the combined effort of all researchers, medical professionals and companies involved.

The persistence of this mistrust against the ability to significantly speed up such a process is deeply rooted in widespread anxiety, feelings of loss of control, and psychological fatigue caused by the pandemic. This can also negatively affect protective health behaviours and, therefore, vaccination intentions.

Can you give examples of such concerns or anxieties?

One argument often used by the opponents of vaccination is the occurrence of side effects. Here, it is important to remember that there is no effective medical intervention without side effects. In fact, it is highly unlikely that any side effects occur after more than 48 hours after injection, my colleagues already addressed this topic in their interviews. There is also the misperception by some people that vaccination is related to death events. These people confuse a temporal association with causality. It becomes clear when looking at the clinical trials: In some of the placebo-control-groups, even more people died compared to the vaccinated group– which is a natural phenomenon and has not at all been shown to be related to receiving the vaccine.

At the same time, making causal connections when there are only temporal coincidences generally is something deeply rooted in our minds. From an evolutionary point-of-view, this has been a successful strategy for survival for thousands of years to try and predict what might be happening next. Nevertheless, looking at the scientific figures can help us to better understand and assess the real danger, which is the virus itself.

How does the anxiety about vaccines relate to people’s everyday behaviours?

The important difference between vaccination and exposing oneself to a potential infection is the fact that the former is a medical intervention. It may be understandable that for some of us allowing foreign agent such as a vaccine to enter our body is somewhat different to our everyday behaviours and habits. On the other hand, walking in the street and catching SARS-CoV-2 might just be perceived as bad luck, as no active action was involved, and it was probably not even noticed. Another example: Excessive smoking or drinking alcohol is also known to have a negative impact on health, still we might find such behaviours even rewarding because it might take away anxiety for a certain time.

People often have anxieties regarding the efficacy of a vaccine and its potential side effects. Probably no one likes the feeling of getting an injection, this is why anxieties in this context should be understood as an entirely normal reaction. There is no need to justify it, but what can be done is to look at the many valid reasons why it still makes sense to receive the vaccination. Anxiety and panic are always bad counsel, you should use your reason.

Still, there are many myths around vaccinations, which all have been debunked but unfortunately also resuscitated in the current coronavirus-crisis. Such conspiracy theories somehow voice the anxiety of many people, thereby creating a feeling to be part of a group, which is a basic need of all of us. It is, therefore, important to acknowledge one’s own anxieties but at the same time to consider the facts. I strongly feel that people should not forget how many deaths and illnesses vaccines have prevented, and how they continue to protect us from potentially devastating forms of infectious disease.

Does this mean that understanding the importance of vaccinations can also help to overcome the anxieties?

Well, we can’t promise that vaccines are going to release people from all their anxieties. But what we can say is that as a matter of fact that they protect against a very infectious – and for many deadly – disease with very high efficacy. The distancing measures which have been put in place now also induce anxieties, loneliness and depression in many people. Especially for those who are living alone or are in retirement homes, this becomes more and more serious. Therefore, social distancing measures cannot serve as a long-term strategy or alternative to vaccination as they only partially slow down the spread of the virus without inducing immunity. If we manage to vaccinate a sufficient proportion of the population, there will be little need to extend these measures for much longer.

Claus Vögele is a full Professor in Health Psychology and Head of the Department of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Luxembourg. His main research areas include Clinical-, Health- and Biological Psychology, Psychophysiology and Behavioural Medicine.

This article was originally published by the University of Luxembourg

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Luxembourg funded by the EU to address the issue of urban health

Prof. Martin Dijst of LISER (Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research) will coordinate a Marie Curie ITN (Innovative Training Networks) project that fosters new skills

Through its Horizon 2020 programme, the EU has funded the “Systems approach of URban enviRonmEnts and heALth (SURREAL)” project, led by Prof. Martin Dijst, Director of the Urban Development & Mobility Department at  LISER.

With this project “Systems approach of URban enviRonmEnts and heALth (SURREAL)”, an ITN Innovative Training Network of the H2020 funding programme will for the very first time be coordinated from Luxembourg and will be deployed across the entire network including France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Israel and Estonia.

The aim of the ITN (Innovative Training Networks) is to increase the scientific excellence and innovative character of doctoral research and training in Europe (EU Member States and countries associated to Horizon 2020), by extending the traditional framework of training to university research in a pioneering and original way. ITNs are resolutely interdisciplinary projects that can respond to major economic and social challenges

© Shutterstock

Why unravel the complexity of urban health?

Worldwide, people’s health status has increasingly been put under pressure by demographic growth, primary energy uses, mobility, and urbanization. Every year, more than 1.2 million people on average die prematurely in EU countries. However, there are large disparities in life expectancy in terms of socio-economic status, gender, age, and ethnicity. On the one hand, cities are especially prone to creating the conditions for health problems, such as sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy diets, air and other pollutions, and stress. On the other hand, cities also offer opportunities for structural and long-lasting healthy transformations in lifestyles and health status. However, the big question is to figure out how to achieve these transformations in a situation where the complexity of urban health problems is increasing, involving many actors. Although not directly focused on COVID-19, this project studies heavily underlying health issues of this pandemic such as unhealthy food consumption, lack of physical activity, air pollution and stress.

The aim of the project is to deliver a unique, creative and single training network for 15 early-stage researchers to co-create an understanding of the urban health system’s complexity, and co-design and apply adequate interventions in the system. The project will draw upon interactions between academic disciplines such as epidemiology, public health, and geography, and a wide range of entities such as medical centres, public authorities, and NGOs as well as citizens. Equipped with this expertise and supported by innovative training formats, such as Collaborative Learning in Practice, SURREAL trains the next generation of professionals in urban health.

To carry out this project, LISER, as coordinator, has joined forces with:
  • L’Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale INSERM (France)
  • University Medical Center Utrecht (Netherlands)
  • Hasselt University (Belgium)
  • Erasmus Medical Center (Netherlands)
  • University of Luxembourg (Luxembourg)
  • Tel Aviv University (Israel)
  • Barcelona Institute for Global Health ISGLOBAL (Spain)
  • Wageningen University & Research (Netherlands)
  • University of Tartu (Estonia)

This article was originally published on LISER’s website. To learn more about the SURREAL project:
Interview with Prof. Martin Dijst
– SURREAL EU CORDIS webpage

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Luxembourg Celebrates 1 Year of Free Public Transport

Since March 1st 2020, public transport in Luxembourg is free throughout the country and for all modes of transport – be it trams, trains or buses. The measure applies to all users, whether they are residents, cross-border commuters or tourists.

News of Luxembourg becoming the first country in the world to offer free public transport made international headlines.

Luxembourg makes all public transport free‘ – CNN
‘Luxembourg is first country to make all public transport free’
The Guardian
Luxembourg is first country in world to make public transport freeEuronews
‘ Luxembourg to Become the First Country to Offer Free Mass Transit for All’New York Times
© VDL

Tackling climate change

Transportation is a growing source of greenhouse gas emissions so finding ways to reduce car use essential for fighting climate change. The implementation of free public transportation is intended to reduce car use, which is a major driver of climate change, and also address income inequality. This aligns with the United Nations’s Global Goals, which include addressing climate action and reducing inequality.

The Luxembourg government’s goal is clear: with free public transport and newly increased capacity with the tram network, it hopes to accommodate more commuters. In 2017, six out of ten people commuted to work in private vehicles. Free public transport is a key in the government’s aim is to reduce this number by nearly half.

Impact: One year later

Due to the unprecedented COVID19 pandemic it is difficult to gauge the adoption of commuters, however recent figures released show a positive trend.
In February 2020, an average of 31,000 passengers used the tram every day. Subsequently, at the start of the confinement in March 2020, this number dropped to 1,400 passengers per day, then gradually rose to an average of 38,000 passengers per day during the week. A peak of 42,000 was reached in February 2021, although the situation has not yet returned to normal due to the use of telecommuting in various sectors.

Research on the impact of free public transport is currently under way and will be shared on Research Luxembourg when available.

More information on free transport: https://mobilitegratuite.lu/en/faq/

More information on research made in Luxembourg in matter of Sustainable & Responsible Development

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How bad will the Covid-19 second wave be for Luxembourg’s economy?

A newly published policy brief examines Luxembourg’s macroeconomic and epidemiological prospects for 2020-2021

The Covid-19 second wave is hitting much of Europe. While this wave mostly affected young healthy people at its start, it is now spreading to older and more vulnerable segments of the population. It is thus with a weary sense of déjà vu that European citizens have been impacted by new packages of restrictions implemented to contain the virus and to prevent healthcare systems from being overwhelmed.

In theory, such restrictions induce ambiguous effects on the economy as they directly curtail market transactions but also avoid panic-driven responses. Yet, lockdown measures implemented in March and April generated mechanical and sizeable cuts in output and plunged most economies into a temporary recession. History might be repeating itself in the coming weeks and the specter of a re-confinement hangs over Luxembourg’s economy.

In a new published policy brief “How bad will the Covid-19 second wave be for Luxembourg’s economy?” co-authored by Michal Burzynski (LISER), Frédéric Docquier (LISER) Joël Machado (LISER), Ferdy Adam (STATEC) and Tom Haas (STATEC), the authors combine recent tools developed at STATEC and LISER to assess the macroeconomic impact of the second wave, to shed light on the interactions between macroeconomic and epidemiological outcomes, and to compare the implications of moderately and highly coercive sanitary measures.

The publication stems from the FNR supported ‘MODVid’ project. The project develops analytical tools to nowcast and forecast the macroeconomic, distributional and epidemiological effects of the crisis and related public health vs. economic policy responses in Luxembourg. To learn more about MODVid and discover its research outputs, follow this link.

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Efficient security concept

All Large Scale Testing (LST) related employees are tested at two-week intervals to ensure maximum safety. As with all working groups, there is a possibility that asymptomatic positives may carry the virus and could be potentially contagious. Some days ago, one laboratory employee was thus actually identified positively. This person was asymptomatic with a low viral load and was immediately sent to quarantine. As the person did not work at the actual test stations but was treating the samples in the laboratory, he was at no point in contact with participants of the Large Scale Testing. A subsequent contact tracing process identified two other infected laboratory employees, also asymptomatic with very low virus titers. The head of the Inspection Sanitaire was immediately informed, and the follow-up was carried out according to the guidelines of the Inspection Sanitaire. 

As the three staff members were at no point in contact with participants of the Large Scale Testing it can be excluded that persons invited to the test were infected by one of these employees. Nevertheless, this case highlights once more the importance of systematic testing even if there are no symptoms apparent at all.

The security measures at the test stations are very high. Employees are equipped with masks, gloves, face shields, special overalls and disinfectants. Persons in the laboratories are also equipped with masks, gloves and laboratory coats (and face shields if necessary). In addition, like all workers who are exposed to a high number of contacts every day (healthcare, hairdressers, etc.), they are tested for the novel coronavirus every two weeks.

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Large scale COVID-19 testing: a public health measure

As part of the deconfinement, Luxembourg is calling on its residents and cross-border workers to get tested for COVID-19. It aims to limit the spread of the novel corona virus by voluntary extensive testing until the end of July. This will allow to break infection chains and thus protect family, friends and colleagues. The more tests are carried out, the more new infections can be prevented and the safer everyday life will be.
©️ Mufid Majnun / Unsplash

From 27 May to 28 July 2020, a total of 17 “drive-through” and 2 “walk-through & bike-through” test stations will become available across the country to carry out up to 20,000 tests per day. Citizens and cross-border workers are divided into representative groups that receive invitations by post to get tested voluntarily.

It is important that as many citizens as possible accept these invitations in the coming weeks, because the majority of those infected do not know that they carry the virus. They show little or no symptoms and pass on the virus unconsciously. The COVID-19 PCR test determines whether a person is contagious. While this is a snapshot, it helps identify positive cases, which will then go into domestic isolation for about two weeks and whose contacts are traced back. This reduces the risk of infection for their fellow citizens and new infection chains can be broken. A large-scale participation in the testing increases the protection of their family, friends, colleagues and, last but not least, the risk groups – and thus helps to keep the spread of the virus under control.

Who will be tested and when?

The testing starts already this week: about 6,000 high school graduates and For the large-scale testing, the population is divided into 3 categories depending on their risk of being exposed to the virus:

Category 1 specifically targets groups who are at work most exposed to the virus and who are in contact with many other people, which may increase the risk of transmission. These are professional groups like nursing staff and doctors; hairdresser and cosmetic services; police officers; staff from nurseries; staff from the HORESCA sector as soon as it is reopened; etc.. This category receives invitations to be tested every two weeks.

Category 2 comprises the groups that are either already working normally again, or for which the lockdown will be lifted in the coming weeks. Within these larger groups, small representative subgroups will be tested for the virus. The results from these subgroups can be seen as an early warning signal for the respective sectors, since they allow to identify any new flare-ups in virus spreading at an early stage. Groups for which the lockdown will be lifted can either be tested completely at once (and then be monitored by regularly testing smaller samples) or be split into randomly selected subgroups which are tested over the entire period.

Category 3. Once the exit restrictions are entirely lifted, the timely detection of an increase in infections is crucial to reduce the risk of a second pandemic wave. Therefore, representative samples of the entire population of Luxembourg including cross-border workers are tested every week. This will facilitate the early detection of infection flare-ups in certain regions or sectors, break infection chains and thus help to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Based on this concept, the following sectors will be tested:

From 25 May:

  • Sectors from category 1: hairdressing and cosmetics, childcare personnel.
  • Sectors from category 2: construction sector.

From 1 June 2020:

  • Sectors from category 1: nursing staff and doctors, police officers, prison guards, pharmacy personnel, system-relevant sector personnel.
  • Sectors from category 2: elementary school students and teaching staff, industry and retail.

This multifaceted testing strategy covers all potential points at which the virus spread can flare up again. It should allow to test a large part of Luxembourg’s population once and thus help to continuously monitor and keep the spread of the virus under control. This enables all residents and cross-border workers to return to their social and professional life as safely as possible. Considering the dynamics of infections, flexibility is needed to be able to respond quickly to new developments (regional or sector-specific infection clusters). Accordingly, depending on the circumstances, the test capacities can be adapted on a weekly basis.

Where will the testing take place?

A total of 17 drive-through test stations are spread across the country. They are located in Neudorf, Niederanven, Ersange, Frisange, Dippach, Steinfort Windhof, Steinfort P&R, Machtum, Junglinster, Schieren, Schinkert, Luxembourg-Bouillon, Kirchberg, Howald, Bascharage, Belval and Esch-sur-Alzette. In addition, walk-throughs are planned in Belval, Kirchberg and at the Rotonde close to the train station in Luxembourg city. A total of 400 people will be working at these stations in the next two and a half months. These are nurses, security and cleaning staff, administrators, logisticians and coordinators.

Figure 1: Drive-through (blue) and Bike-through/walk-through stations (green) with their maximal testing capacity (red). A) Black dots mark all stations in the whole country. B) Zoom of the Centre and South of Luxembourg.  

How does the testing work?

Citizens and cross-border workers will receive an invitation per post, which will allow them book a test appointment online at one of the testing stations. On the selected date, the person goes to the testing site, where they present their invitation, ID card and their insurance card. A throat swab is then carried out and sent to the laboratory. The tested person leaves the test site and receives the test result via SMS within two days. If the result of the test is positive, the person is contacted personally by the Inspection Sanitaire and will be asked to spend two weeks at home in self-isolation. If the test result is negative, the person must continue to follow the usual protective measures and can return to everyday life.

Who are the partners within this project?

The project has been developed by Research Luxembourg’s COVID-19 Task Force and is led by the Luxembourg Institute of Health. The tests are carried out by its contractual partner Laboratoire Réunis, who is logistically supported by Ecolog.

What is the COVID-19 Task Force?

Efficient measures in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic require close cooperation between research, hospitals and the Government in Luxembourg. For this reason, Research Luxembourg (LIH, LISER, LIST, LNS, Luxinnovation, University of Luxembourg and FNR, under the coordination of the Ministry of Higher Education and Research) has set up the COVID-19 Task Force in order to better implement relevant initiatives. Based on a list of priorities elaborated by ministries and other partners, a number of work packages have been defined, which the COVID-19 Task Force will work on in the coming weeks and months. In cooperation with the government, the COVID-19 Task Force sees its role in providing scientific input to enable the government to work on a fact-based EXIT strategy. To this end, the COVID-19 Task Force is continuously working on updates on the development of the pandemic in Luxembourg and submits concepts and recommendations from a scientific perspective so that they can be incorporated into the political decision-making process.

Communicated by the Luxembourg Institute of Health and Research Luxembourg