WHO launches ‘CoViNet’ — a global laboratory to monitor emerging coronaviruses

Builds on COVID-19 reference laboratory network established during early days of pandemic to confirm disease

Photo for representation: iStock

The World Health Organization (WHO) has launched a global network of laboratories to identify and monitor potentially novel coronaviruses that could emerge shortly. Besides SARS-CoV-2, the new WHO Coronavirus Network, called CoViNet, will assess other coronaviruses, including MERS-CoV, with enhanced laboratory capacity.

The international agency widened its focus by building on its earlier collaboration with the WHO COVID-19 reference laboratory network, which was set up in January 2020 during the pandemic to confirm the disease.

The network will now have animal health and environmental surveillance and timely risk assessment to feed WHO policies and protective measures. In low- and middle-income countries, CoViNet will support the building of more laboratories to monitor MERS-CoV and novel coronaviruses of public health importance.

“Coronaviruses have time and again demonstrated their epidemic and pandemic risk,” Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, acting director of WHO’s department of epidemic and pandemic preparedness and prevention, said in a statement. 

She added, “This new global network for coronaviruses will ensure timely detection, monitoring, and assessment of coronaviruses of public health importance.”

The world has witnessed four influenza pandemics, varying in severity, over the last 100 years, but the last pandemic has put the WHO on alert for detecting novel coronaviruses. 

CoViNet comprises 36 laboratories from 21 countries in all six WHO regions, including three Indian laboratories. These are the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, the Indian Council of Medical Research-National Institute of Virology in Pune, and the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute.

At a meeting on March 26-27, 2024 in Geneva, Switzerland, representatives of the laboratories finalised an action plan for 2024-2025 to respond to health challenges brought on by novel coronaviruses.

Further, virus sequencing and data gathered through the network will guide the WHO’s Technical Advisory Groups on Viral Evolution formed to assess the SARS-CoV-2 mutations and variants, as well as the expert advisory group on COVID-19 vaccine vomposition.

COVID-19 was the first ‘Disease X’ and it may happen again, warned WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a recent event hosted by the World Economic Forum.

Disease X is a placeholder for an unknown disease anticipated by the WHO to be of unprecedented magnitude. It is mostly likely to be a zoonotic disease with a ribonucleic acid (RNA) virus. Coronaviruses are a large family of RNA viruses. 

Some coronaviruses commonly cause mild illnesses such as the common cold with names like OC43 and HKU1, having seasonal peaks in winter. On the contrary, three coronaviruses turned out to be lethal; SARS-CoV in 2002, MERS coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in 2012 and SARS-CoV-2, which  caused the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

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