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Riems: The isolated epidemic island in the Baltic Sea

Holger Weitzel / getty images

More than 100 years ago, the scientist Friedrich Loeffler began researching viruses and infectious diseases. The physician is considered to be the first to set up a virological research institute worldwide – on the island of Riems, which lies in a shallow extension of the Baltic Sea between the mainland and the island of Rügen. At that time, the institute on the 1250 meter long and 300 meter long island consisted of stalls for twelve cattle and a few pigs, as well as a small laboratory. Today it is a high-security area that normal mortals do not see.

Several institutes belong to the research facility on the island of Riems, for example the Institute for Infection Medicine or the Institute for International Animal Health. Animal diseases in particular are researched in this remote location – because they can also be very dangerous for humans. The aim of the researchers is to understand the pathogens and develop vaccines that can curb the spread of the disease. The FLI also issues vaccination recommendations for small animals and farm animals and is responsible for assessing the risk of animal diseases such as avian influenza in Germany.

Who was Friedrich Loeffler?

Friedrich August Johannes Loeffler lived from 1852 to 1915. He studied medicine and was particularly concerned with hygiene and bacteria. Loeffler discovered various pathogens for infectious diseases such as snot (this infection affects the mucous membranes, skin and internal organs of horses and donkeys) or diphtheria (a respiratory disease that mainly occurs in childhood).

Friedrich Loeffler in his laboratory in Greifswald.

Friedrich Loeffler in his laboratory in Greifswald.

Bettmann / getty images

He also described the pathogen causing foot and mouth disease (FMD). Together with his colleague Paul Frosch, Loeffler discovered that the pathogen was even smaller than a bacterium – today we know that it was a virus. Loeffler is therefore also considered a co-founder of virology.

At the time, the doctor was researching this pathogen in his laboratory, which was initially located at the University of Greifswald. However, this led to massive problems: the virus spread several times as a result. Whole herds of animals fell ill with the disease around Greifswald.

The Prussian government therefore urged Loeffler to work in a more remote location to minimize this risk. In 1910 he founded the world’s first virological research institute on the island of Riems. Three years later Loeffler was appointed head of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin.

The institute has a high-security laboratory

Even today, the Friedrich Loeffler Institute (FLI), as the federal research institute for animal health, is responsible for monitoring and researching animal diseases.

450 employees work in the fully secured institute: everything is cordoned off, there are high fences with barbed wire. Nothing and nobody is allowed in here who is not authorized to do so – and especially not out. Because anyone who works here deals with some of the most dangerous and contagious pathogens in the world, such as rabies, BSE (also known as mad cow disease) or Ebola.

Animal experiments are also part of the work. Riems is home to one of only three high-security laboratories in the world in which dangerous viruses are tested directly on animals. The aim is to develop a vaccine against the diseases. Veterinarian Anne Balkema-Buschmann explained to ZDF: “Our aim here is that the whole thing is carried out for the welfare of the animals. That might sound like a paradox. But if we do a study with vaccines here, it will ultimately help many, many other conspecifics. “

Research is also carried out here on the new type of corona virus

Research into the novel coronavirus is also supported here. In April 2020, the institute had already researched which animal species SARS-CoV-2 can infect. While the pathogen could not harm pigs and chickens, flying foxes and ferrets became infected.

Ferrets can be used as “model animals for the infection of humans to test vaccines or drugs”, so the institute in the press release.

And so in another study, a prototype vector vaccine was administered to ferrets. In connection with the study, no animal was sick or died, the institute announced. The exact results will be published soon.

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