Detecting emerging disease outbreaks through monitoring

A new European research collaboration aims to increase the chances of detecting emerging infectious disease outbreaks. Researchers from the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark, along with colleagues from the Netherlands, are coordinating the project.

In our increasingly globalized world, an infectious disease outbreak somewhere on the planet can also pose a threat to human health elsewhere, because there is a risk the disease will spread across national borders, e.g. via travel and the transport of food. The current corona pandemic is a clear example of this.

The quicker relevant actors become aware that an infectious disease outbreak is brewing, the better their chances are of taking action, allowing them to take steps to slow down and thereby reduce both the consequences and the cost of the outbreak.

New project, same goal

Researchers from the National Food Institute, along with colleagues at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, head up a five-year EU-funded Horizon 2020 project, VEO, which aims to develop a global monitoring system of infectious diseases further. The monitoring system makes use of a platform for sharing information, which makes it possible to quickly identify disease-causing microorganisms that cause or have the potential to cause disease outbreaks worldwide.

Through the use field studies, laboratory work, big data research and important observations made by citizens throughout Europe, the project will work to improve on the monitoring system already developed by the National Food Institute and Erasmus MC together with a large number of partners in the now completed COMPARE project.

Sewage holds important information about the spread of coronavirus

In VEO, the National Food Institute is e.g. responsible for a work package, where analyses of sewage from all over the world will be used to map the spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2—and to identify the factors, which have helped the virus develop into a pandemic.

The COMPARE partners have already proved that analyses of sewage can generate important information about the exact type of bacteria that are present in particular areas. For use in this project, the National Food Institute has collected sewage samples for the past five years. Under the auspices of VEO, the institute’s researchers now want to extend the analysis of sewage samples collected from February 2020 and onwards in 14 cities to include SARS-CoV-2.

The threat from the melting poles

The institute’s researchers are contributing to another work package by analyzing samples of the Greenlandic permafrost to see whether the melting poles pose a threat of triggering new diseases. The project with also study whether changes to the migration patterns of birds across Greenland cause by climate change will affect e.g. the prevalence of mosquito-borne diseases in the country.

In a third work package under VEO, the National Food Institute is working with European partners to develop a platform, which researchers worldwide can use to share and retrieve raw data on the novel coronavirus’ genetic makeup for use in e.g. developing vaccines or diagnosing illness.

Plans were in place to develop such virus-focused databases as part of the VEO-project. However, the work package has gotten underway earlier than planned to ensure the SARS-CoV-2 database becomes available as soon as possible.

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