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Obituary for Christian Kunz, 1927 – 2020

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Christian Kunz

Christian Kunz died on Easter Sunday, 12 April, at the age of 93. He was the founder and long-standing chairman of the Department of Virology at the Medical Faculty of the University of Vienna (now Medical University of Vienna). He is regarded as a pioneer and key figure in the development of virology in Austria and will go down in medical history as the father of the FSME vaccine (vaccine for tick-borne encephalitis).

Christian Kunz was born in Linz on 13 October 1927, studied medicine in Vienna and Innsbruck after the second world war and, after obtaining his PhD in 1954, joined the Hygiene Institute at the University of Vienna. Initially he worked as an unpaid visiting doctor and then as a research assistant. In the 1950s, the young Christian Kunz saw virology as an emerging field of research with many technological innovations and ground-breaking developments, such as e.g. the use of cell cultures for virus replication and the development of the polio vaccines. His boss, Richard Bieling, encouraged his scientific interest in virology by enabling him to spend study placements with leading researchers in Freiburg, Tübingen and Marburg, which were the strongholds of virology at the time. This gave Kunz access to the very latest developments in virology and he returned to Vienna full of enthusiasm (and equipped with cell cultures for his research work). It was just at this time that the Viennese Institute managed to isolate a virus as the cause of the initially puzzling disease that was prevalent in the south of Vienna, so-called Schneider’s disease. This virus was then designated the early summer meningoencephalitis (FSME) virus and it went on to form the central focus of Christian Kunz’s research career.

His publications soon drew international attention and he was invited to continue his research work at the Rockefeller Laboratories in New York, with a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation. This meant that, in 1961-1962, he spent his time in a research institution that was bristling with prominent virologists of the time and, among others, he got to know Max Theiler, who had won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1951 for developing the yellow fever vaccine. This research placement and his contacts with outstanding scientists shaped the rest of his career.
Once he was back in Vienna, Hans Moritsch, the new Chairman of the Hygiene Institutes, charged him with running a newly established virus division and, with the knowledge he had gained in the USA, he built up research expertise in the field of arthropod-transmitted viruses (arboviruses). The FSME virus also played a central role during this phase. He developed specific diagnostic techniques, which were extremely innovative for the time, studied the natural life-cycle of the virus and identified the human infection sites in Austria (keyword 'Tick Map').

Following the death of Hans Moritsch, Heinz Flamm took over as chairman of the Hygiene Institute and allowed a separate Department of Virology to be established. Christian Kunz was appointed to lead it as a professor of virology in 1971. His work on the epidemiology of FSME made him realise that it was by far the most prevalent viral disease of the central nervous system in the endemic regions and made him decide to use his knowledge to develop a vaccine. These efforts, initially in collaboration with an English research institution and then later with the Austrian pharmaceutical company Immuno, were crowned with great success and led to the production of a highly effective vaccine. Its wide-scale use brought about an impressive decline in FSME in Austria. Rumour has it that he and his former employee Hanns Hofmann (who is likewise no longer with us) administered the first experimental vaccine to each other in a sort of self test and were somewhat relieved to discover, after a few weeks, that it was indeed well tolerated.

The development of the FSME vaccine is probably the achievement that is most closely associated with the name Christian Kunz. However, his role in the development of virology in Austria and in Europe was much more wide-ranging, especially through his committed work in the area of viral diagnostics and medical virology. In 1975, he was a founding member and subsequently long-standing chairman of the 'European Group for Rapid Virus Diagnosis', an association of leading medical virologists from several European countries, who were primarily concerned with developing new methods for the early detection of viral infections. This lent a new significance to virus diagnosis, which was relevant in clinical patient care. The quality of output from the association (which became the European Society for Clinical Virology in 1997) was outstanding, enabling it to take a leading role on the world stage. Christian Kunz was Chairman of the Austrian Society for Hygiene, Microbiology and Preventive Medicine for several years and was a highly valued expert on numerous national and international committees, giving his expertise in the service of healthcare policy decisions. For example, in the mid-1980s, he made a significant contribution towards ensuring that the new problem of HIV infections in Austria was tackled in an evidence-based manner rather than a fear-based manner.

Christian Kunz retired in 1996 and, in 2006, was awarded the Loeffler Frosch Medal by the international ‘Society for Virology’ for his outstanding services to the development of virology in the German-speaking countries. He had already been awarded the Medal of Honour in Gold of the Federal Capital Vienna in 1988 in recognition for his outstanding achievements and he was also an honorary member of various national and international scientific associations.  One of his great accomplishments was to allow medical, virological research and virus diagnostics to co-exist symbiotically with basic molecular research at his Institute, in a manner that was fruitful for everyone. He was always benevolent, supportive and encouraging and had faith in the abilities of his staff and we will never forget his irrepressible and infectious sense of humour, which he displayed even in difficult times. We are all grateful to him not only for his scientific achievements but also for his generosity and greatness as a human being.

Prof Franz X Heinz, on behalf of the staff of the Center for Virology, Medical University of Vienna.