Respiratory viruses

Monitoring Influenza and other respiratory viruses

We focus on research and laboratory surveillance of respiratory viruses likely to cause outbreaks, epidemics or even pandemics in the population. Our major concern is the influenza virus, as it causes a large epidemic every winter, infecting 5 to 15% of the population and several deaths every year. Every few decades (e.g. in 1918, 1957, 1968 and 2009), a new influenza virus emerges in the population and spreads quickly around the world causing a global epidemic: a so-called ‘pandemic’. Such pandemics can have devastating consequences on human health and cause major socio-economic disruptions.

Respiratory viruses in general can spread easily in the population and are specifically prone to cause large scale outbreaks or epidemics. Most of these viruses cause relatively mild diseases, but some of them can trigger severe diseases or even lethal complications. Therefore, we remain alert in case of a new crisis or outbreak, and keep ready to offer quick laboratory support to the authorities in case of an emergency.

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Our team hosts the National Reference Centre for Influenza. This centre monitors the activity of influenza viruses all year long and determines the characteristics of the circulating strains in Belgium. This enables us to give recommendations for the optimal composition of the next influenza vaccine. We also measure the vaccine effectiveness and the resistance of the viruses to antivirals.

We are embedded in the international network of influenza centres and are a back bone component of the WHO’s Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS), of the European Influenza Surveillance Network (EISN) and of the European Reference Laboratory Network for Human Influenza (ERLI-Net).

To measure the intensity and severity of influenza activity in Belgium, our centre receives clinical information and samples of patients with influenza-like illness from a network of sentinel general practitioners and a network of sentinel hospitals. These samples are subsequently tested for influenza and other respiratory viruses.

We are able to detect all relevant respiratory viruses and continuously adapt our laboratory capacity to include new viruses which pose a threat to the population. In case of unusual outbreaks, we are also able to test samples of exotic and dangerous respiratory viruses, such as avian (bird) influenza virus (H5N1, H7N9, etc.), MERS or SARS coronavirus.

As part of our “One Health” approach, we aim to better understand how bird influenza viruses can adapt to humans and potentially cause new epidemics. Several lines of research involve the implementation of next-generation sequencing techniques for the deep characterisation of influenza viruses, as well as the detection and characterisation of new and unidentified strains by metagenomic approaches.

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