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European Virus Archive goes global

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World’s largest virus collection becomes key to fighting COVID-19 pandemic

The world right now is all about containing COVID-19, and maybe even wishing for its complete destruction. But that would be omitting an important truth: virus conservation is a cornerstone of research and securing it could help prevent global virus outbreaks from happening again.

Health

Such has been the priority of the EVAg consortium since 2008, when the European Virus Archive (EVA) – which has since become global – was created. To facilitate research and vaccine development, two consecutive projects have been initiated since 2015 to prevent the fragmentation and potential disappearance of virus samples across the world. The current high probability of virus collections being lost as a virologist retires or a laboratory closes is a real threat, and a dangerous one. The transfer of high-risk pathogens and sharing of collections have been made very difficult by strengthened anti-terrorist measures. One day, these obstacles could backfire in the form of unpreparedness for the next pandemic.

Diagnostic kits and virus strains

The project’s core ambition is to develop and produce reference material for molecular diagnostics. These notably include non-infectious reagent technology for fast worldwide shipment. “This is especially valid for distribution at room temperature in African countries,” says Jean-Louis Romette, emeritus professor at Aix-Marseille University and coordinator of the EU-funded EVAg (European Virus Archive goes global) project. “We have for instance a new concept of positive controls that mimic the virus while not being infectious. It can validate the extraction procedure, which is a key step in molecular diagnostics. It is also important for longer-term endeavours such as vaccine and antiviral drug development.” Let’s take the infamous COVID-19: To scientists actively involved in the fight against its SARS-CoV-2 virus, EVAg notably proposes highly demanded PCR reagents required for testing, including positive controls, four SARS-CoV-2 strains, and a specificity panel for PCR assay including RNA from five viruses (SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, NL63, OC43 and 229E). The platform essentially works like an online shop with a shipping service, providing paid access to selected resources for academics. “Requests keep pouring in,” notes Romette. “Some 2 336 inquiries have been received from both the academic community and industry since we offered access to the virus strains in our catalogue. One of our partners is facing requests for large-scale production and distribution of PCR reagents, and exchanges are increasing within our network.” To date, the consortium has supplied over 2 300 products supporting diagnosis to more than 70 countries. Recently, the equivalent of 70 000 PCR tests have been provided to the Ministry of Health of Guatemala, and 2 500 PCR tests to the Ministry of Health of Slovakia. Such a situation actually makes a case for what has been the project’s focus for the past 11 years. This covers: providing high-quality products to the international scientific community; helping institutes from low income countries provide rapid responses for the control of local emerging viral diseases; and becoming the most responsive network in the fight against viral outbreaks. “Our work consists in associating high-calibre scientists around a situation to bring a prompt response to an emergency. We do so even before national and international institutions start funding actions. We have successfully implemented worldwide actions adapted to pandemics through one single point of entry: a web-based catalogue making the search for products easier than ever,” Romette explains.

Unprecedented effort

EVAg currently gathers 43 laboratories at the forefront of human, animal and plant research in virology. Its web-based catalogue provides access to more than 3 000 products, including viruses, derived materials and engineered cells. The network also integrates 14 facilities dedicated to high-risk pathogen simulations (BSL4), making it the largest BSL4 network worldwide. Like his colleagues, Romette is positive that EVAg is on track to provide the largest virtual virus collection for human, animal and plant viruses. To ensure continuity, despite the EVAg project formally ending in July 2020, the team are also working within an entirely new Horizon 2020 project, EVA-GLOBAL, which launched in January 2020 and will continue until the end of 2023.

Keywords

EVAg, European virus archive, EVA, COVID-19, diagnosis, virus, catalogue, outbreak, SARS-CoV-2, molecular diagnostics, PCR, coronavirus

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