Coordinated global virus collection to boost disease control
Virus collections are vital resources for understanding the basis of diseases and formulating control strategies. An EU-funded project is developing an easily accessible global archive of pathogens - a way of boosting research into protecting human and animal health.
© James Thew #32892363, source stock.adobe.com, 2018
The isolation of viral pathogens in a laboratory enables researchers to investigate the causes of a wide range of diseases, but the preservation of the resulting virus collections for other scientific studies is challenging.
Some collections may be lost when a virologist retires or a laboratory closes, while others may not be accessible because scientists are not willing or able to share them. New anti-terrorist security measures regulating the transfer of high-risk pathogens among research groups pose another barrier to sharing collections.
The European Virus Archive (EVA) was created in 2008 to meet the need for a coordinated virtual virus collection that could be made easily accessible to researchers, public health organisations and industry. The EU-funded EVAG project was set up in 2015 to turn EVA into a global organisation.
Involving 26 partners and 16 associate laboratories from around the world working in various disciplines of virology, EVAG has created an online catalogue of more than 2 000 products including human, animal and insect viruses, reagents, antibodies, proteins and diagnostic kits held by the partners. It oversees their distribution on a non-profit basis and the implementation of appropriate safety and security measures by supplying and recipient laboratories.
In this way, the project is supporting research, education and disease control as well as improving laboratory practice. Current processes of coordinating virus standardisation, characterisation, preservation and distribution are largely dependent on the specialisation of each laboratory, says project coordinator Jean-Louis Romette of Aix-Marseille University in France. It would be virtually impossible to establish a single laboratory to maintain supplies of all recognised mammalian viruses. We have addressed this by using web-based tools to centralise access to quality-controlled, standardised preparations of viruses held in laboratories worldwide. The concept is simple, but because virologists are protective of their collections, its success has required a mindset shift.
Interested parties request materials from EVAGs catalogue, where products are ranked according to quality. All requests are evaluated by expert panels in terms of scientific objectives, techniques to be used, expertise and facilities for handling the viruses and last but not least, biosafety and biosecurity practices.
The partners exchange know-how and further develop the EVAG infrastructure through joint research activity, which also has the potential to strengthen diagnostics and create new antiviral approaches.
In addition, EVAG fosters links between its partners and institutes in low-income countries to support growth of virus collections in those countries and give their researchers access to modern technologies. They can use the EVAG quality management and distribution systems while retaining ownership of their collections.
Another element involves working with national disease control centres and international bodies, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Organisation for Animal Health and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to improve responses to emerging diseases. This work involves formulating standard operating procedures to guide the use of diagnostics and the distribution of diagnostic tools during emergencies.
The project has already contributed to the control of the MERS coronavirus in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Zika virus and yellow fever in South America under the WHO umbrella.
EVAG's ultimate objective is to become a permanent archive that provides access to a very wide range of viruses and reagents globally, says Romette. This will be achieved firstly through extension of the funding arrangements, secondly through further increasing the range of contributors to the collection, and thirdly by creating synergies with large European or international infrastructures involved in EVAG-related activities.
Based on the excellent progress so far, we have every reason to believe that the consortium will continue to expand and ultimately constitute the world's largest virus collection, Romette concludes.