Collecting the world's viruses, empowering urgent research
Ebola, Zika, MERS, COVID-19? An EU-funded collection of mammalian viruses is supporting researchers around the globe in their efforts to shed new light on old and emerging illnesses and advance their treatment and control. This Research Infrastructure is the world's largest archive of such pathogens and is set up to respond to outbreaks quickly.
© James Thew #32892363, source stock.adobe.com, 2018
Updated on 2 April 2020
The European Virus Archive was once a purely European collaboration. As of March 2020, it now involves 50 institutes worldwide, all sharing collections and contributing expertise to support research into viral pathogens.
Recent activity has notably focused on the new coronavirus at the origin of the unfolding pandemic. We were among the first institutions to receive the information about COVID-19 from the Chinese authorities, says network coordinator Jean-Louis Romette of Aix-Marseille University in France.
The partners managed to react very quickly indeed, developing reagents specifically designed to detect the new virus in clinical samples, drawing up detailed guidance and making these assets available within a week, he adds.
The rapid response capability on which this achievement draws had already been put to good use during outbreaks of Zika, Ebola and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Romette notes. It was built up as part of EVAG, an EU-funded project set up in 2015 which has been advancing the development of a cooperation launched in 2009.
EVAG has boosted the number of products available to the scientific community via the networks web-based catalogue, which currently lists some 1 900 viruses and about 1 000 derived articles, such as antigens and detection reagents.
These resources are held in the partners respective collections. For research into emerging viruses and the treatment and control of the diseases they cause, such collections are absolutely essential and those encompassed by the network combine into the worlds largest archive of this type of material, says Romette.
Further activity in EVAG has involved harmonising methodologies and disseminating good practice for example, by developing guidelines for the use of diagnostic tools. The network cooperates with national and international organisations including the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
The project has also encouraged institutes in more areas to build up collections. Many low-income countries are completely dependent on international assistance when it comes to organising the control of emerging disease, Romette explains. We invited scientists from 15 institutes for training that enables them to produce their own material for the detection of emerging viruses in their region.
Although EVAG ends in July 2020, the cooperation will continue. The networks activities will be pursued and expanded in the recently launched project EVA-G (EVA-Global), also funded by the EU and coordinated by Aix-Marseille University.
Romette says that the number of institutions both consortium members and associated partners cooperating in this new incarnation of the network has nearly doubled compared to predecessor project EVAG, which has already encompassed 26 participants. The geographical coverage has also been extended, as more institutions in Africa, Asia and South America have joined in.
Preserving precious pathogens
EVA-G will boost the networks rapid-response capabilities, with a dedicated contingency budget set aside for the provision of resources in the event of epidemics. It will also involve efforts to complete the archives collections, Romette notes, further developing the already globally unique Research Infrastructure.
Even the most obscure viruses could become of interest to the scientific community, particular if an outbreak were to occur, he explains in which case, access to the pathogen would be needed quickly.
In the new project, the partners will also attempt to reconstitute historical strains that are no longer available, but whose genomic sequences were documented by earlier research. The opportunity to study such strains could, for example, provide useful insights into their evolution, Romette explains.
EVA-G will run for four years, and Romette is already exploring ways to ensure the archives continuity beyond the project ends.
A virus collection is a bit like social security, he concludes. It will never generate a profit; its inevitably an expense. But it has to exist, just in case.