A virus changes constantly. The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is also constantly changing slightly. RIVMNational Institute for Public Health and the Environment is conducting laboratory research to see how the virus is changing and what this means for the spread of the virus in the Netherlands. This is known as pathogen surveillance. 

Every week, RIVMNational Institute for Public Health and the Environment conducts laboratory research on a random sampling of test samples. In this research, all the building blocks of the genetic material from the virus (RNA) are mapped. This is called sequence analysis. This technique makes it possible to examine the building blocks of the virus and compare them to those of other samples. This shows whether the virus is changing and how, and to determine if extra vigilance is necessary for certain variants. We can also see how different strains of the virus are related and how the different variants are spreading. This is known as phylogenetic research.

Working together and sharing knowledge

RIVMNational Institute for Public Health and the Environment is collaborating with Erasmus MC and other laboratories throughout the country on these research efforts. The laboratories submit a random sampling of test samples for research purposes every week. RIVM has been doing these analyses since the beginning of the epidemic. By now, this involves about 400 samples every week. In the near future, this number will be increased to about 1200-1500 samples per week. Laboratory research takes more time and is more complicated than analysing a sample for a PCR test, for example. Various specialists are involved in the research. 

RIVM, Erasmus MC and other laboratories throughout the Netherlands are conducting pathogen surveillance into the spread of COVID-19

Map of the Dutch laboratories conducting SARS-CoV-2 pathogen surveillance

The data from the laboratory research provides valuable information on the different variants of the virus, their characteristics and the spread of the variants. With this information, RIVM can use mathematical models to predict the course of the epidemic and the effects of measures. In addition, this information is valuable to experts all around the world. For that reason, data is collected and shared in an international database. RIVM also belongs to international expert groups that monitor the evolution of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. This allows experts at research institutes and international organisations such as the ECDC and WHO, for example, to have access to the same data around the world. This is reciprocal: RIVM obtains information from this international network about variants of the virus that have not yet been detected in the Netherlands, but may well emerge. 

Variants of the virus

It is estimated that there are thousands of variants of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 by now. Different variants of the virus have been circulating in the Netherlands since spring of 2020. The fact that there are different variants of the virus is not new. The main focus is whether the variants that are circulating also have new characteristics that pose additional risks. For example if they are more easily transmitted, make people more ill, or do not respond as well to vaccination. A growing number of SARS-CoV-2 variants are currently being monitored and researched worldwide: from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. 

Read more about the new variants of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2