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"The coronavirus pandemic became a test of what research can do"

Online teaching, cancelled research projects and having to work from home. This has been the new norm at Aarhus University since 11 March 2020. But the pandemic has also triggered new studies and research collaborations that have helped to address the social crisis brought about by the pandemic. Meet two AU profiles who can now add 'corona researcher' to their CVs.

2021.03.19 | Henriette Stevnhøj

When Denmark was forced to its knees by the coronavirus pandemic, AU researchers Søren Riis Paludan and Michael Bang Petersen set out to produce knowledge that could be used to tackle the pandemic. Photo: Lars Kruse/AU

"When people ask "How is it possible to develop a vaccine within one year?" I say, "It's not. It takes 15 years.  2020 was just the home stretch for the vaccine," says Professor Søren Riis Paludan from the Department of Biomedicine.

As a virologist and immunologist, he came to play a central role in developing and testing new vaccines and antiviral drugs against the, then, still unknown COVID-19 disease.

A few days into the first lockdown, Søren Riis Paludan gathered a team of researchers to set up an approved laboratory where they could study the novel coronavirus that had brought the whole world to its knees. The research team, which has now evolved into five research groups at the Department of Biomedicine, has since studied the coronavirus, and samples of the virus have been flown in from Wuhan, Japan and Germany. The collection also contains the mutated variants from mink farms, the UK, South Africa and other places.

Søren Riis Paludan didn't need to change his field of research drastically, as it already involved viruses and the immune system in connection with infection and vaccination.

"The coronavirus was like getting a new family member that we already had the framework to study. That's why we so quickly became a partner in vaccine development," explains Søren Riis Paludan, who received part of a coronavirus grant from the Carlsberg Foundation.  

Collaboration across borders

Amongst other things, the researchers at the coronavirus laboratory test vaccine candidates developed by researchers at the University of Copenhagen.  This collaboration across research institutions and national borders is highlighted by Søren Riis Paludan as a perfect example of how universities can mobilise knowledge efficiently and quickly in a time of crisis.

"As the coronavirus spread, and countries everywhere closed their national borders, researchers reached out to each other across specialist fields, organisations and borders to share knowledge and produce results. Against a dire background, the universities have therefore proven that they can produce knowledge of immediate benefit to society. Basic research has traditionally remained in the shadows, but the pandemic has highlighted its value, and basic research combined with applied clinical research has now brought the world several different vaccines in record time. The coronavirus pandemic became a test of what research can do," says Søren Riis Paludan.

Now, he is looking forward to seeing the world reopen and again being able to travel to meet fellow researchers.

"When researchers meet and work together, that's when groundbreaking results are made. During the lockdown, we reaped the results of years of collaboration, but now we're running out of ripe fruits to pick. Now, we need new input," says Søren Riis Paludan.

Clear communication shows the way

Before 11 March 2020, Michael Bang Petersen, a professor of political science, was writing a book and starting a study on online hate and misinformation.

Then came an announcement about the possibility to apply for coronavirus research grants from the Carlsberg Foundation, and within just 24 hours, Michael Bang Petersen and his colleagues wrote an application which eventually gave them DKK 25 million for the HOPE research project (How Democracies Cope with Covid-19). The purpose of the project was to understand how information is spread in a democracy during a crisis, such as a pandemic.

"I didn’t apply for the Carlsberg Foundation grant out of the blue. I was already committed to gathering data on the pandemic, which I publicly argued was not only a health crisis, but also a social crisis. When a major crisis like this strikes, it's important not to see it from only a single perspective," says Michael Bang Petersen, who also used his Twitter account as a platform to examine the way politicians were communicating about the crisis.

Research project of real and topical value

Since March 2020, as head of the HOPE project, Michael Bang Petersen has been telling the public how lockdowns and restrictions affect different population groups.

Most recently, the HOPE project published a study showing that in March 2020 the public felt they received clear communication and therefore followed the authorities' guidelines on keeping distance and not shaking hands, etc.

"We’re in a rather atypical research situation and it is drawing considerable public attention. The HOPE project has been an opportunity to study a pivotal event as it happened in Denmark, because we were given the opportunity to collect data as the event unfolded. Normally, I talk to journalists after we've completed a study. Now, we're communicating our analyses of developments in people's attitudes and behaviours as they happen. That's real value," says Michael Bang Petersen.

He greatly appreciates being able to lead the HOPE project.

"The responsibility can be burdensome, but it's a real privilege to be able to contribute knowledge for solutions during this serious crisis," says Michael Bang Petersen.

When the coronavirus pandemic eases its grip, he looks forward to being able to immerse himself in his research again.

"I'm looking forward to being able to delve into a problem that doesn't have to be solved in only a month or two, and I'm anxious to understand more deeply some of the social problems that 2020 has brought with it," says Michael Bang Petersen.



Michael Bang Petersen and Søren Riis Paludan are among the top-five most cited researchers from Aarhus University in the period from 11 March 2020 to 11 March 2021. The citations are related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Unique mentions

Incl. duplicates

  Professor Lars Østergaard, consultant  



  Professor Søren Riis Paludan  



  Associate Professor Christian Wejse, specialty registrar  



  Professor Michael Bang Petersen  



  Professor Michael Svarer  





Read more about AU research on the coronavirus pandemic

The website with coronavirus news has mentions of research projects, grants and results related to the coronavirus pandemic. There are also links to podcasts produced by BSS on the occasion of the anniversary of the first lockdown.




Professor Søren Riis Paludan
Department of Biomedicine
M: +45 28 99 20 66

Professor Michael Bang Petersen
Department of Political Science and Government
M: + 45 20 77 59 44


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