Meet Invited Speaker Dr Jean-Claude Piffaretti

30-10-20 Carianne Buurmeijer

During this COVID-19 period, microbiologists are essential to explain to the lay population what we know and what we do not know about the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This would help people to understand the incertitude of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, we are living in a world claiming certitudes, whatever true or false…

We are pleased to introduce Dr Jean-Claude Piffaretti, Interlifescience, Switzerland, past President of FEMS and one of the invited speakers at the FEMS Online Conference on Microbiology 2020.

Presentation: The COVID-19 pandemic seen by the past chair of the Swiss committee for preparing pandemics
COVID-19 Round Table, Saturday 31 October

Tell us about your current area of research: what is happening in the world around us that it can help answer?

Since I retired in 2006 from the Cantonal Institute of Microbiology in Bellinzona in Switzerland, I do not have any more a research laboratory. However, from the beginning of my professional career, I had been overlapping general, molecular and medical microbiology, which is continuing with my consultancy company. I am presently interested in a number of microbiological topics: antimicrobial resistance, evolution, pandemics, biosecurity. I am also active in sharing my knowledge with the lay population and in addressing ethical issues related to science, microbiology in particular. Much research in microbiology is occurring all over the world. In the short-term hopefully we will have treatments and vaccines to fight COVID-19, however, I am much concerned about the lack of novel antibiotics to fight efficiently antibiotic resistance. This is mainly due to the lack of financial resources and to the loss of economic attractiveness for investors.

For many scientists, this will be their first Online / Virtual conference, what do you think are the pros and cons of this format compared to in-life conferences?

I do not dislike online-virtual conferences: if you select them carefully, you can hear good science from other scientists as well as the progresses they are doing in your field, all that without losing time travelling, queuing in airports, waiting for flights, and so on. However, from time to time it is also crucial to meet physically colleagues to share thoughts, ideas, and beer! Social “hard” contacts are essential.

Scientists are truly globetrotters, travelling to conferences (when possible) and relocating often during their careers. Although this is not possible right now, it can be uplifting to think of our travels of the past.

What location has left an impression on you? Why?

I have been often impressed travelling in the Americas as well as in Europe and elsewhere: I encountered everywhere interesting scientists, exchanged nice ideas outside science, met stimulating people. I also found people with diverse thoughts compared to mine on many various topics, which is a personal enrichment. At the end, being a globetrotter is a great advantage because it enhances one’s capacity to understand people’s diversity, provided discussions are held in a mutual respectful way.

You have chaired the Swiss committee for preparing pandemics – what is it you have learnt in that capacity that is elementary when dealing with a pandemic?

I learned that preparing a pandemic plan is different from managing it. Indeed, the preparation is worked out when the feared event is not there, and the stakeholders have many other priorities and interests to deal with. In addition, politicians are generally concerned with a number of different short-term issues: this has a negative influence on the energy and funds to be allocated for the preparation of an event that is unlikely to happen in the short term.

Managing a pandemic is addressing an event caused by a usually unknown agent occurring in an unexpected moment with a pressing requirement to respond efficiently and quickly. Many difficulties are happening all of a sudden that have to be solved. These difficulties are not only related to health but also to socio-economic issues. We realize that though science has done many progresses particularly in the field of genetics and molecular biology, we still have important knowledge gaps in the understanding basic aspects of an evolving pandemic, for instance the diverse modes of transmission of the infectious agent: indeed we continue to rely on “old” measures to fight the spread of the agent, such as social distancing, disinfection, masks….. Such prevention measures will be successful only if the whole population accept to apply them appropriately, but this is another (and old) story. Anyway, I look forward to the quick availability of vaccines that have to be accessible to the whole world.

Another fact that has to be pointed out is that science is providing expertise and models related to biological and health aspects, embedded in an incertitude background. At the end of the day, the decisions have to be made only by politicians who must take into account different variables in addition to health and scientific matters, such as economics, social values, the future of the young people, people acceptance of the measures to be taken, etcetera.

Finally, I have been impressed and concerned by the surge of inaccurate information and fake news, which are greatly amplified by the (social) media. This is really a huge problem which has to be addressed!

Scientists have warned for a potentially harmful virus, as SARS-CoV-II proved to be, years ago. One would hope that society will also learn to take similar warnings more seriously, but in the current situation the opposite also applies: fake news and scepticism are still on the rise.

What can microbiologists do to help pivot this situation?

During this COVID-19 period, microbiologists are essential to explain to the lay population what we know and what we do not know about the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This would help people to understand the incertitude of scientific knowledge.

Unfortunately, we are living in a world claiming certitudes, whatever true or false…


The FEMS Online Conference on Microbiology is planned to be small to medium sized, happening in alternate years to the Congress of European Microbiologists and organized in close collaboration with a local microbiology society. Here, intercontinental, European, regional, and local scientists, from all stages in their career and from all demographical backgrounds, can participate in a high-profile conference. This year, it is based on an intense collaboration with the Serbian Society for Microbiology and boasts a variety of regional speakers.
Our commitment at FEMS is to help support microbiologists do their work, promote the best in microbiology research and knowledge to the world, and bring microbiologists together to share that knowledge. This event supports that commitment: giving high value for money at a low registration fee it opens possibilities for networking and exchanging knowledge and experiences to all.
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