Abbott remains ready for the next potential pandemic
Viruses and their variants have become increasingly understood by the public over the past few years as society begins learning how to live with COVID-19. Clinical medicine, public health, and scientists have been monitoring pathogenic virus variants for decades to predict and react to them as they evolve and move around the globe.
To keep a step ahead, Abbott's Global Viral Surveillance Program was established in 1994.
"The aim of the program was to proactively address the challenge that we were observing with virus diversity and its impact on the performance of diagnostic and screening tests," explains Dr John Hackett, the Divisional Vice President of Applied Research and Technology for Abbott's diagnostics business, and the manager of Abbott's Global Viral Surveillance Program. The program was initially focused on bloodborne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis which mutate at a very rapid rate.
Today, Abbott's Global Viral Surveillance Program consists of partnerships with laboratories and organisations all around the world, allowing for shared access to unique patient samples which aid in the discovery of new and rare viruses and virus strains. This enables researchers to enhance local epidemiological knowledge, and share new findings through peer-reviewed journals, fuelling innovation and raising global health defences within the infectious diseases field.
Viruses evolve and as we have seen, some emerging strains become variants of concern quickly. To combat this, the goal of the program is "to be at the front-edge of the curve and identify these (variants) in the field as early as possible to continually validate our diagnostic tests' ability to detect new strains," Dr Hackett said.
From a diagnostic perspective, creating an assay with the ability to detect infection while being resistant to virus mutations is important. This is achieved by targeting conserved regions of the virus when it comes to assay development.
"When we develop a test, our scientists develop one that accounts for genetic variation and evolution," Dr Hackett continued.
The program has since grown with approximately 100,000 patient samples collected across six continents and 45 countries. A rich database of virus sequences from around the globe is necessary as "all of these viruses and different variants of them are a plane ride away really," explained Dr Mary Rodgers, the Principal Research Scientist who manages the program with Dr Hackett.
The program has generated a significant amount of information amassing over 150 publications, much of which are available in public databases. This includes thousands of sequences that are important for diagnostic purposes.
"We share our scientific insights and make the data and findings available for other researchers to improve global health for everyone," Dr Hackett affirmed.
Collaboration with institutions and individuals globally is a key aspect of the success of the program. Partnerships such as the unique industry-academic partnership with the University of California, San Francisco, and Dr. Charles Chiu as well as collaborators at the CERI institute based at University of Stellenbosch in South Africa are examples of how Abbott's vast network of information and resources has allowed them to ultimately improve patient care and public health.
"We have a collaborator in South Africa who generated the very first sequences of Omicron and shared them with us enabling our teams to quickly validate our tests' ability to detect them, while the first Omicron sequence identified in the US was identified by Dr. Chiu's laboratory," Dr Rodgers and Dr Hackett elaborated.
To further bolster the frontlines, the Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition was launched in March of 2021, dedicated to the early detection and rapid response to future pandemics. The Coalition comprises 14 scientific, public health, government and academic partners and enables researchers to work together to identify new emerging strains of known viruses and potentially discover novel viruses that may pose a potential pandemic threat.
Abbott's Global Viral Surveillance Program and the Abbott Pandemic Defence Coalition are robust initiatives to detect future viruses of concern quickly to help stop future pandemics and ensure our first line of defense - diagnostic tests - are ready for the latest threat.
"That's one of the things that sets us apart – we've built a network and infrastructure to support a rapid response from sample collection to diagnostic test development. With scientists prepositioned around the world, we have boots on the ground that are able to obtain the critical samples needed for analysis and to assess emerging threats," Dr Rodgers concluded.