COVID-19: The Mérieux Foundation deploys diagnostic and research expertise to strengthen partner laboratories on the front line of the outbreak

The Mérieux Foundation is working to strengthen novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) detection and infection control capability among its partner laboratory networks. The Foundation’s support focuses on two interventions: strengthening diagnostic capacity by quickly deploying a molecular test to detect SARS-CoV-2, and assessing the risk of nosocomial transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in hospitals in order to better understand hospital-based prevention and infection control measures. The work is being carried out in partnership with Prof. Philippe Vanhems from Hospices Civils de Lyon and Prof. Jianwei Wang from the Christophe Mérieux Laboratory in Beijing.

The first case of 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was reported in Wuhan, China, on December 31, 2019. The disease has since evolved into a global epidemic, with over 70 countries currently affected and working to respond to the outbreak. The challenge is especially daunting for developing countries, some of which lack the technology and expertise in their health systems to diagnose COVID-19 and control the spread of the disease.

The Mérieux Foundation is harnessing its extensive network on the ground, which includes international laboratories within the GABRIEL network and the RESAOLAB regional laboratory network in West Africa. The Foundation has identified two areas of focus based on feedback from these laboratories, which were asked to indicate where they required strengthening in order to be able to cope with a potential COVID-19 outbreak.

Strengthening local SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic capability

The Christophe Mérieux Laboratory in Beijing, founded jointly by the Mérieux Foundation and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences (CAMS), is a member of the GABRIEL network. The laboratory regularly works with Lyon-based teams and other GABRIEL members in the Global South, especially on technology transfer initiatives. The RT-PCR molecular test developed by the laboratory is being used for all for SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics in China.

The Mérieux Foundation will ship the tests to all requesting facilities in order to overcome equipment and technology shortcomings and support quick and effective diagnosis of novel coronavirus cases. Identifying infected patients is vital to establishing security and quarantine measures and helping to limit the spread of the virus.

Launching a research protocol to limit nosocomial transmission

While diagnosing COVID-19 is an urgent priority, it is equally important to identify and reduce transmission risk in hospitals. Evidence has shown that SARS-CoV-2, like SARS-CoV-1 in 2003, is characterized by a particularly high rate of nosocomial infections. In response, the Mérieux Foundation has developed a research protocol that partners on the ground can use to assess nosocomial transmission risk for SARS-CoV-2. The protocol has two features:

  • mapping available expertise in hospitals in order to identify what interventions are needed to limit nosocomial transmission
  • carrying out an epidemiological study to gain a better understanding of transmission chains and the impact of hospital-based prevention and infection control measures, in order to identify key infection risk factors.

The Foundation is currently deploying the protocol with local teams in 10 countries: two in Asia (Bangladesh and Myanmar), one in the Middle East (Lebanon), and seven in Africa (Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Senegal, Guinea, Madagascar and Côte d’Ivoire), where it is working with the Africa CDC. Six of these countries have also requested diagnostic strengthening support and will receive a constant supply of kits, reagents and standard operating procedures (SOPs). The protocol has also been made available to eight teaching hospitals in France for subsequent results- and experience-sharing.

The Foundation will adapt its interventions to local needs and, as circumstances dictate, could foster synergies with other health-care partners on the ground.