Laboratory Support for influenza and SARS-CoV-2 for Europe: AURORAE

AURORAE provides laboratory support for surveillance, preparedness and response to COVID-19 and influenza and strengthens the capacity for genomic epidemiology and public health bioinformatics through interdisciplinary training, which is crucial for response during a pandemic or unexpected major public health events.

In 2022, the ECDC awarded a new framework contract to a consortium of twelve institutes from eight European countries: “Support to microbiology-related activities and capacity building focusing on COVID-19 and influenza in the EU European Union (European Union)/EEA, the Western Balkans and Türkiye. Laboratory support, training, and standardisation”. The aim is mainly to strengthen the capacity for genomic epidemiology and public health bioinformatics through interdisciplinary training in the EEA, West-Balkan and Türkiye, which is crucial for pandemic response or unexpected major public health events. AURORAE started in June 2022 and will run until 2026.

AURORAE activities can be divided into three components.

External Quality Assessment (EQA)

EQAs under this Framework Contract include the assessment of workflows in the participating laboratories, including diagnostic assays (e.g. RT-PCR, rapid antigen tests, antibody test), virus isolation and characterisation (e.g. genetic, antigenic, antiviral susceptibility profile), and virus-neutralisation tests (VNT)). The assessment of bioinformatic workflows, including generation of consensus genome sequence from sequence reads, clustering and classification, and prediction of antiviral susceptibility, is included in bioinformatic ring trials, even here with a focus on SARS-CoV-2 and influenza viruses. 

Centralised Laboratory Support

The scope of the centralised laboratory support for influenza and SARS-CoV-2 viruses is to ensure surveillance and in-depth genetic and antigenic characterisation of circulating influenza and SARS-CoV-2 viruses. All participating laboratories, particularly those currently lacking sufficient capacity or capability, shall get access to virus characterisation services of sufficient quantity and turn-around time that allows for a timely pandemic response.

The objective of these activities is to support the laboratories in fulfilling national reference functions and to ensure that information on circulating viruses is collected, validated, analysed and shared in a timely manner with the participating laboratories, and to inform the public health authorities at national and international level on detection of variant viruses that may not be completely protected against by natural immunity or the current vaccines, are likely to cause an increased number of COVID-19 and influenza cases or impact any public health response measures.

In addition, this work package aims to support laboratories involved in the national response to COVID-19 with central virus neutralisation testing (VNT) capacity, providing technical support and studying the correlation of antibody titres determined by used laboratory methods and VNT.  This work package also aims to collect and evaluate antiviral resistance data for influenza (and for SARS-CoV-2 when applicable) and support virus neutralisation assays. The development and/or validation of diagnostic assays and the deployment of primers and probes for RT-PCR-based diagnostic assays for either COVID-19 or Influenza will strengthen and harmonise the diagnostic capacity and capability among the participating laboratories.

During the first year, the AURORAE consortium collected standard laboratory protocols on a variety of laboratory methods for the characterisation of SARS-CoV-2 and summarised them in a handbook and a database. The handbook and the database can be used to establish new methods and revise and renew existing laboratory methods. 

Training Activities

The overall objectives of the training are to support capacity building relevant to detection, characterisation and response, focusing primarily on influenza and COVID-19. The training formats include face-to-face training courses (wet lab and dry lab), tailored twinning visits of various durations, and virtual training, including self-paced online courses, webinars, instructive videos, and instructor-led courses. The trainings will be advertised in due time by ECDC to the ERLI-Net and/or ECOVID-LabNet but are also open for participants from national public health institutes or associated institutes in countries of the EU/EEA, the Western Balkans and Türkiye.

Consortium

AURORAE consists of multidisciplinary members with complementary expertise. This consortium is composed of the following institutes: Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Institut Pasteur, Erasmus University Medical Center, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Laboratoire National de Santé of Luxembourg, Hellenic Pasteur Institute, Robert Koch-Institute, Sciensano, National Institute of Health, Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Hospices Civils de Lyon and the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, RIVM.  

Role of RIVM

RIVM coordinates AURORAE and significantly contributes to the External Quality Assessments with Dr Doctor (Doctor) Adam Meijer and Dr Ivo van Walle. Dr Adam Meijer is one of the project leads and the work package leader for the coordination of the project and the External Quality Assessments.

Funding

AURORAE is funded by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), project ID ECDC/2022/001.