Virologist and research leader Wim van der Poel is working at WUR on universal state-of-the-art COVID-19 test methods. Photo: WBVR
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Until 2020 we associated infectious diseases in the Netherlands with chickenpox or the flu. Then along came COVID-19. We saw how fast the virus spread and it taught us that new variants form a constant threat. That is why Wageningen University & Research is working with the EU on universal state-of-the-art test methods so that member states can inform one another immediately if there is a new outbreak.
Wim van der Poel — a virologist and head of research on Emerging and Zoonotic Viruses at Wageningen Bioveterinary Research — is in charge.
You are heading the EU COVRIN project together with the University of Surrey in the UK. What does this involve?
“COVRIN stands for Coronavirus Research Integration. It is a network project: we want the lines of contact between the EU’s member states — and ultimately worldwide — to be so short that new variants of COVID-19 are picked up immediately.”
Is that not the case at present?
“All member states test for COVID, increasingly with PCR tests that give a lot of information about the spread of the virus. However, not all countries have sufficiently advanced laboratories in which the virus can be analysed in great detail. Along with certain countries such as Germany, France and the UK, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) is in the vanguard of what are termed sequencing analyses, which tell us quickly whether new variants are circulating. Lab and animal tests can then show how the variant behaves. Does it kill off more cells, does it make the hamsters sicker and does it spread more easily? If so, it is more aggressive and therefore more dangerous.”
“Yes, hamsters are susceptible to coronaviruses, just like humans. They become groggy and get a fever. Minks and cats can get COVID too, but not cows for example. Incidentally, the animal tests are also very important when testing vaccines. We can see whether our vaccines protect people against new variants.”
COVID has been the top priority for nearly two years among scientists and policymakers
COVID-19 spreads more easily due to the many journeys undertaken worldwide. Photo: Oliverouge 3 / Shutterstock
And do they?
“Up to now, the vaccines perform very well for the variants that have circulated so far. But that is no guarantee for the future. It’s possible that a mutation will appear soon that can circumvent the vaccines we currently use.”
Have you already thought of a solution for that within the EU?
“We don’t have a new vaccine ready and waiting because we can’t predict exactly what the new variant would look like. We can however use models to simulate possible scenarios. I am convinced we will be able to act much more quickly next time around. The infrastructure has improved immensely since the start of 2020. That is the case for the development of new vaccines: we’ve got the basis and, for the mRNA technique at least (Pfizer and Moderna, ed.), the changes required will be relatively straightforward. But we are also much better prepared from a policy perspective too.”
So this time we won’t say: ah, COVID in Italy, no need to worry here yet.
“No, I really don’t think that will happen again. We know so much more about the virus, how it behaves and what we need to do to stop it: lockdowns, scaling up healthcare and so on. What is more, it has now been the top priority for nearly two years in the health service, among scientists and among policymakers at the national, European and international levels. I see that sense of urgency every day in the networks I am involved in, such as the One Health European Joint Programme (OHEJP). That organisation has been around for years and is now coordinating the COVRIN project.”
A PCR test gives a great deal of information about new variants and the spread of the virus. Photos: Shutterstock
If a very aggressive new variant pops up in Eastern Europe, will we catch it in good time?
“If the test facilities — in particular the labs for classifying variants — remain as limited as they are at present, it will take slightly longer to pick up the mutant than if the new variant emerged in the Netherlands or Germany. But this is relative: a variant you spot in Bulgaria, for instance, could still come from Germany. Detecting it needs to be a joint effort. We are now working hard on getting a significant improvement in the testing and analysis facilities in all countries — including in Eastern Europe.”
And what if the mutation emerges somewhere in Asia rather than Europe? Will we still hear about it?
“That is trickier, especially in the case of China. One of the aims of COVRIN is to find out precisely how COVID-19 came about, but we are unable to get hold of the initial samples of the virus in China. Did it come from bats? Yes, that is now the consensus opinion. But we are simply not able to find out what route the virus took to reach humans. We expect China to be reluctant to share information in the future too. But viruses don’t respect borders so new viruses will be picked up elsewhere in no time. If we can sound the alarm immediately within the EU, at least we will be able to respond quickly.”
The EU has quite a few COVID-19 projects, including ERRAZE, which WUR is also involved in. Isn’t that a bit much?
“It is creating a lot of work, but that is justified. COVRIN is aimed specifically at coronaviruses, managing the current pandemic and being better prepared for new variants. ERRAZE (Early Recognition and Rapid Action in Zoonotic Emergencies, ed.) looks ahead and is aimed at identifying new zoonoses more quickly and thereby preventing future pandemics. After all, COVID will not be the last such outbreak: humans and animals are living in ever closer proximity, global warming means disease-transmitting insects from hotter countries can now survive in colder regions, and we spread viruses more easily because we travel more around the world.”
We are simply not able to find out what route the virus took to reach humans
The virus came from bats but the transmission path to humans is unclear. Photo: Shutterstock
That sounds ominous. Are we properly prepared, for example if there is a new virus that is not transmitted via the air?
“That’s a good point. If we were to have a virus that was transmitted via your food, say, that would be another story. But our old friend the PCR test can still detect the virus in that kind of disease-transmitting material too. We now have that knowledge in the Netherlands and in many other parts of Europe. COVRIN is a two-year project and hopefully by the time it ends, the necessary knowledge and technology will be available across the EU. Incidentally, high-tech test methods alone are not enough. Society at large also has an important role in flagging up developments. Farmers and nature managers, for example, see animals getting sick and GPs are the first to be faced with sick humans. I have full confidence that they will be alert and report developments to institutions such as the Dutch National Institute for Public Health (RIVM).”
A total of 16 countries are participating in COVRIN, some with more than one science institute. How do you manage that?
“Well, it is a challenge but everyone is on the same page. A particularly difficult question is how to share data with one another. Each country has its own digital systems and each records research data in its own way, and that is an obstacle to reliable data sharing. We now have a data expert working full-time for COVRIN on that synchronisation.”
Isn’t it a little frustrating for you as a leading virologist that it has taken COVID to suddenly make so much research possible in your discipline?
“No, not really. I am pleased with all the attention and research opportunities. Although it has given us a huge amount of extra work. Of course, we are still doing research on many other pathogens and zoonoses, from African swine fever to bird flu. Before COVID-19, I was working hard on hepatitis E infections among pigs, which can be transmitted to humans via meat consumption. It does not spread nearly as fast as a respiratory virus but it also deserves our attention. It would be nice if we could sustain the European collaboration set up for COVID-19 in the future and also extend it to become a worldwide network exchanging knowledge and sounding the alarm with one click of the button.”
European research context
Coronavirus Research Integration (COVRIN) addresses the following European policy challenges:
- One Health collaboration on coronaviruses
- Being better prepared for new potentially epidemic threats from coronaviruses
- Identifying the factors that contribute to the emergence and spread of coronaviruses
- Determining the risks from the spread of coronaviruses
Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Bioveterinary Research Countries involved in Europe: Australia, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and United Kingdom
Duration: 2021 – 2023
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