Dr. Isabelle Suárez

Isabel Suarez Infektiologen der Uni Köln
© KölnTourismus GmbH, Foto: Axel Schulten

Dr. Suárez, infectiologist at the University Hospital of Cologne is talking about the project SCHOCO (Covid-19 monitoring in Schools) and is giving us excting insights to her research fields.

Dr. Suárez, infectiologist at the University Hospital of Cologne is talking about the project SCHOCO (Covid-19 monitoring in Schools) and is giving us excting insights to her research fields. 

Dr. Suárez, you are the medical director of the SCHOCO project and an infectiologist at Cologne University Hospital. What is SCHOCO all about?

It is about child-friendly testing and screening methods in schools. SCHOCO stands for "Schul-Observation auf Corona" (Covid-19 monitoring in Schools). Nose and throat swabs can be particularly unpleasant for young children. That is why an extensive multi-centre study into lollipop tests in schools and day-care centres was conducted prior to the pilot project. For the test, children suck on a normal swab for 30 seconds. These are then collected and examined. A major benefit of the lollipop test is that it is extremely easy to collect samples – it doesn't hurt, it's quick, and there's little disruption to the classroom schedule.

Another big advantage is that samples from the same classroom can be put into a single container, after which the entire batch is sent to the laboratory for PCR analysis. If the batch tests negative, then teaching continues as usual. But if the batch turns out to be positive, individual swabs are then be taken to find out who is infected. This method, which schools and day-care centres can carry out on their own, and which took shape in the University of Cologne’s Virology Department, saves resources and laboratory capacity.

How well was the SCHOCO pilot project received?

Participation has grown from week to week. And acceptance has increased as people have realised how easy it is. We were able to effectively break the chain of infection outside of school. After all, the whole point of the project is to get an insight into society through schools. The pilot phase has been a success! Starting in May, the lollipop tests for elementary and special schools will be rolled out throughout the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

What role does Cologne play as a science location in your work?

SCHOCO is a highly interdisciplinary project. In Cologne, of course, we benefit from our fantastic research departments – Virology, the Children's Clinic and Medical Clinic’s Infectiology Department. Plus, our collaboration with the City of Cologne’s Office for Public Health has been good. A project like this only works if the city goes along with it and actively supports it. In addition to our interdisciplinary approach, our close relationship with the city is certainly a great advantage.

Imagine your project to combat SARS-CoV-2 is successful and the virus is largely defeated. The virus would have been largely defeated. What would you look forward to researching next?

Looking at infectious diseases and medicine as a whole, last year was dominated by work on Covid. But we have seen lots of successes, too. All the same, I think we would be pleased to turn our attention to something else – both professionally and privately.  

Before Covid came along, the focus of my research was on tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is a major problem around the world. But the successes that have been achieved in some countries during the last few decades are currently being torpedoed by the pandemic, as is research into lots of other diseases. I look forward to focussing on the subject once again.

Finally, a personal question: What will be the first thing you do in Cologne when the lockdown is lifted and what do you currently miss most?

I miss children playing with each other normally again and seeing their grandparents without worrying about the virus. The crisis has had a huge impact on our children, which is also one of the reasons we are doing this project! What else do I miss? I would love to go to a nice Kasalla or Brings concert again with my girlfriends (laughs).