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He runs a global project against corona, but still answers emails from random people

Jens Lundgren heads a project in the DKK 65 billion coronavirus initiative initiated by the White House. As an HIV researcher, he has previous frontline experience against an unknown virus, but he has never tried working so quickly – or getting so many e-mails and threats.

Jens Lundgren’s inbox is chock-a-block with emails from people asking him for help. They recount their personal medical histories and ask the man, who they know as the coronavirus scientist from TV, what to do.

Not all enquiries are coherent, and sometimes it is unclear what the problem actually is.

But Jens Lundgren can’t just ignore them. He has often spent time that he does not have answering these requests:

»Some people have suggested that I should just write a standard phrase like ‘I’m sorry that you feel sick, but you need to ask your own doctor’. But this is a detached way of responding, and I hate doing this. If I have to answer, I need to answer properly,« he says.

The fact that he often responds is perhaps because he is really bad at saying no, he says. Not just to people who ask for help, but also, for example, to journalists who want to have his assessment of the latest infection numbers and restrictions, or the latest drugs.

His daughter likes to call him an idiot (probably in a loving way) because he too often does what people ask him to. And his wife has told him that he needs to be better at saying no. It just does not seep through to him.

But this is a detached way of responding, and I hate doing this.

Jens Lundgren, Professor of Infectious Diseases, UCPH and Rigshospitalet

»I know that over the years I’ve had a real hard time saying no when people have asked me to do something. It actually is like this. I see it as them needing help, or that they are actually interested in what I think.«

He didn’t say no to this interview either.

It is not because Jens Lundgren has nothing else to do. His body language reveals this if you did not know it already. As the tape recorder starts, he is still shuffling sheets of paper on his coffee table. Then he leans back in his chair, takes his glasses off and rubs his eyes, hard and long, as if they would stop working if he didn’t.

He replied to the first emails at five o’clock this morning. He has been working non-stop ever since, and it is approaching lunchtime. His last meeting is in the evening at 22:00, 17 hours after the start of the working day.

A moment to live for

There’s nothing unusual about that. It has been Jens Lundgren’s life since March, and it will continue to be for, well, who knows how long?

In May, he joined Operation Warp Speed, a large-scale global DKK 65 billion effort to fight corona that was initiated by the White House. He is the only non-American in the project called ACTIV-3, but he is still the person in charge of the initiative. As he says himself: »It IS strange… «

On the other hand, Jens Lundgren has already helped produce decisive research results in the fight against Covid-19. He was European coordinator for the Remdesivir trial, which was the first product to have a positive effect on corona patients with advanced pneumonia.

READ ALSO: Promising drug given to first Danish corona patients

It is actually this experiment that is the basis of the effort that is headed by Jens Lundgren, and which will test up to 45 drugs on 10-20,000 patients throughout over the world.

»We could say, all of a sudden: ‘OK, this works’. The next step is to ask: Can we improve treatment with other means too? Can we do this even better? The Remdesivir trial has become a linchpin in terms of our knowledge,« says Jens Lundgren.

»It’s like getting the TV to work for the first time. This is the prerequisite for being able to buy larger screens afterwards, make a smoother setup, or get access to more streaming platforms.«

I normally travel 100 to 150 days a year, so I’ve never been at home this much.

Jens Lundgren, Professor of Infectious Diseases, UCPH and Rigshospitalet

The experiment with Remdesivir says something about Jens Lundgren. It shows why he agreed at all to using virtually all of his waking hours on combatting the coronavirus.

It’s not just about money. He is a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Copenhagen and a senior hospital physician at Rigshospitalet, that is, in the public sector, where there are no astronomical bonuses. In fact, he says he could earn ten times his current salary if he took a job in the private sector.

But it is about fighting a new and unknown disease and ensuring the scientific breakthroughs that will immediately benefit patients. Like, for example, the Remdesivir study.

»This is what we live for. That’s why a person like me works. It is to experience the few moments in your career, where you really reach a breakthrough.«

The hunt for these moments is happening right now at an extraordinary pace. This is why the Americans have used the wild velocity of the space ships in Star Trek as the name of their research effort: Operation Warp Speed.

Jens Lundgren has called the Remdesivir experiment the fastest he has ever helped complete. The researchers had the experimental protocol approved at record speed at the end of March, and they already had the results just over a month later.

»It was a freak process,« he says.

»I wasn’t sure it would have a positive effect. It was pure serendipity, I would say. We had no time to prepare it and rationalize whether it made sense or not. It was just: Let’s try this. Then we came up with the results in two months, and it turned out to work. Bang, that’s it.«

Bureaucracy swept aside

This is all »really extraordinary«, says Jens Lundgren – and not just because of the speed.

It is also easier to sail straight through the maelstrom of politics and bureaucracy that normally hampers the passage of science. If the researchers want something, they get it. If Lundgren and his colleagues, for example, ask for a particular research group to be a part of their daily video calls, they all turn up, no questions asked, even if it is Sunday at 2 pm.

»I wasn’t sure it would have a positive effect. It was pure serendipity, I would say.

Jens Lundgren, Professor of Infectious Diseases, UCPH and Rigshospitalet

At the same time, the whole world is waiting for the answers that Jens Lundgren and his colleagues are working on. Powerful politicians, people with family or friends who are susceptible, restless souls just want to go out and party again.

Lundgren claims that the pressure – the pressure from the outside – does not get to him.

He does, on the other hand, say that he feels the pressure to find the truth and to avoid errors, because the results that the research group come up with will have an impact on human lives and health.

»Many people will immediately act upon our results, and this is an important pressure. That there is pressure from the outside, and that everyone wants us to hurry up … they don’t have to tell us that. We are well aware of this.«

Search for breakthroughs

Jens Lundgren has experienced pressure from the outside before. In fact, he says Covid-19 is a deja-vu experience for him.

In the mid-1980s, as a young medical student, he went to the American research agency National Institutes of Health (NIH) – partly because he had no luck with his love life in Denmark, he says and laughs.

The year before he arrived in the United States, researchers had discovered HIV, and this meant that Lundgren could see his American colleagues fighting a new unknown virus from the front row.

READ ALSO: Allan Randrup Thomsen speaks to reporters non-stop: »I’m really scared of making a fool of myself«

It immediately fascinated him.

»It was really exciting because it was a new disease. The breakthroughs and what you learned – it was like this,« says Jens Lundgren and snaps his fingers. »It was like Covid-19 now. Six months ago, we didn’t know anything about the disease, and now there are around 50,000 articles about it.«

If he was not curious, he would not live the life that he is living, according to the professor.

This curiosity was the motivation for him to continue working with HIV when he returned to Denmark. Back then, HIV research was still plagued by a stigma, and many pulmonologists would not study the patients’ lungs. Lundgren had to learn this himself.

 

I'm inside a bubble at the moment, and now I'm just going to continue. Then we'll see.
Jens Lundgren, Professor of Infectious Diseases, UCPH and Rigshospitalet

»The field attracted people who would like to create knowledge about something new, instead of building on existing knowledge about known diseases. That’s what I find interesting about infectious diseases. You can never say, ‘this is what we usually do’, because there are always new microorganisms that you have to deal with and learn about.«

Just as important: Both HIV and Covid-19 are serious diseases that have affected millions of people all over the world, and have therefore forced researchers to make breakthroughs.

Jens Lundgren has been behind some of them. This includes helping to show that HIV-positives’ risk of getting AIDS and other diseases like cancer and tuberculosis decreases significantly if patients are treated before they get symptoms. This was research that led to the World Health Organisation WHO changing their guidelines for treating HIV infection.

Smear emails and threats

Jens Lundgren is, in other words, used to being at the forefront of the war against a new virus. But he’s not used to being as much in the media as he is right now.

On Uniavisen’s list of the most cited researchers at UCPH, he climbed up to tenth spot this year, and he has likely gone up since the list was published in mid-April.

He says that he is attempting to fulfil a real need for information among the general public. At a time where not everyone who gets a microphone stuffed in their face should be able to express themselves with such certainty.

»Maybe my specialty is not that difficult, because I can see that a lot of people have quickly learnt it during the past six months. They have become very skilled at it and express themselves authoritatively about the topic. But some of us have been doing it for several years, so perhaps we have a little more experience.«

It’s really crazy to see what people write to someone like me.

Jens Lundgren, Professor of Infectious Diseases, UCPH and Rigshospitalet

But commenting comes at a price.

Jens Lundgren already indicated this when he was a guest on the TV 2 News talk show Lippert, where the TV host held up a picture of the Roskilde Festival and asked him when the Danes can look forward to going nuts again front stage.

Jens Lundgren hesitated:

»You see, when I answer this, I know that I will get 50 hate emails.«

It turns out that this actually happens in many contexts.

»There is a downside to this,« says Jens Lundgren.

»It’s really crazy to see what people write to someone like me. They don’t know me at all. I’m just trying to give my honest assessment of something. I think it’s really unpleasant.«

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The vicious accusations come in many forms: Some people attack him personally, others suspect that he has hidden motives or is covering up a plot, and some seem to be plagued by jealousy, according to him.

In the beginning it really affected him,and he had to devote a lot of time to talking to both his family and his colleagues about it.

»I didn’t understand what it was that motivated these people to write such personal things. But I understand that this is part of the game. Apparently. I’m not the only one who is the object of it.«

»But when it starts to be look like threats, then it becomes too much.«

Have you been threatened?

“Yes, but this is taken care of … it’s apparently part of the game when you put your head up above the parapet.«

He has considered several times completely withdrawing from the public debate. But, as he says, there are some »reasonably influential people in this country,« who have told him that it is important that he keeps it up.

»Then we return to our starting point: Then I’ll do it,« says Jens Lundgren.

Back to base

Once every week these days, his thoughts do not revolve around the corona virus. It is the two to three hours Saturday morning when he is on his road bike with a bunch of other amateur cyclists.

He is on the bike because he wants to. But also because he has to.

»Otherwise I would go … «

He has no word for it.

»I just have to ride a long ride and meet up with people in the bike club. Just sitting back in the bunch on the fourth row chatting.«

Can you get your mind off things when you ride?

»Yes, I’ve found out that I don’t want to talk about corona there. And the others are really nice about not asking about it.«

This is how Jens Lundgren still sees a few friends, even though corona takes up most of his time. He also sees his family more than usual.

»I normally travel 100 to 150 days a year, so I’ve never been at home this much!« he says.

»And my family and friends have circled the wagons around me. I have retreated back to base, you might say. Many people have tried to take advantage of the fact that I have this position, and many people want to take a bite out of you. It’s important to surround yourself with people you can really trust.«

The question is whether, during the fight against covid-19, he will have to retreat even further to base and take a break from the media and 18-hour work days?

The answer is that he does not know.

»I’m inside a bubble at the moment, and now I’m just going to continue. Then we’ll see.«

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