A new Nordic research project will make use of Nordic health data to study pandemics from a historical perspective.
In December 2020, NordForsk awarded funding to 12 new interdisciplinary research projects in collaboration with: the Independent Research Fund Denmark; Formas of Sweden; the Swedish Research Council; the Icelandic Centre for Research – Rannís; the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare (Forte); the Research Council of Norway; and the Academy of Finland.
One of these new research projects is led by Professor Lone Simonsen, head of Roskilde University’s PandemiX Center in Denmark. NORDEMICS, the research project she is leading, will examine pandemics within a historical context. This is important, emphasises Simonsen, because those past experiences are the only basis we have for understanding current and future epidemics and pandemics.
“Studying pandemics is difficult because they are rare,” she explains. “To predict the future, one must apply mathematical models, and these models have to be based on assumptions about past pandemics’ patterns and mortality. This enables us to assess and understand, to a certain extent, how the course of future pandemics may develop. I believe that it was thanks to many years of research into history’s pandemics that I was one of the people who declared, years ago, that our next pandemic could be a coronavirus, and who stated early in 2020 that COVID-19 was a pandemic. Because I have examined historical patterns of influenza pandemics from over 100 years ago and had an idea of what to look for.”
She points out some of the differences compared to the outbreaks of earlier times: we are now more connected than ever before in history. There are more people on earth, and we come into contact with viruses from animals more than before. But we must not forget that past pandemics were also able to spread. They certainly did, particularly through trade, shipping, and later by rail. A hundred years ago, it took only a few months for influenza pandemics to engulf the entire world.
Unique health data
“We can design unique studies now. The results will be better, and that puts the Nordic region on the world map as a go-to place for studying these topics. We have a tradition for collecting and preserving data going back hundreds of years – and we can find data thought impossible to find,” says Simonsen.
Project funding will go in part to studying the course of major pandemics and epidemics through time. Researchers are able to look back 300 to 400 years, thanks to public health records kept in the Nordic countries back then – including on one of the earliest smallpox epidemics. Simonsen explains that Denmark kept good records from around 1700 up to 1810, when the smallpox vaccine became mandatory in Denmark. It was the first vaccine ever, enabling Denmark to contain the viral disease in the early 1800s.
“We have studied pandemics and epidemics before, but this is something new,” continues Simonsen. “This funding from NordForsk and the national research councils gives us access to health data in the other Nordic countries and the opportunity to collaborate on this topic with colleagues there. It is quite exceptional, accessing such a large historical health database. The whole idea is to take an interdisciplinary approach, and it is fantastic that NordForsk and the national research funders see the value in this, because previously it has been difficult to find funding for interdisciplinary projects. Sweden, Norway and Denmark all have excellent health data which has been studied far too little in connection with infectious diseases.”
“Our project will strengthen Nordic pandemic cooperation and preparedness.”
“This funding enables us to set up a research network spanning all of Scandinavia, which we’ve been missing. I actually was unaware there were researchers in Norway and Lund studying similar topics to ours here at Roskilde University. We can step up the pace now that there are more minds working together,” concludes Lone Simonsen. “Our project will strengthen Nordic pandemic cooperation and preparedness.”
Photo of Lone Simonsen: University of Roskilde