WELLINGTON, Aug. 2 (Xinhua) -- New Zealand's expertise in tracking COVID-19 is being applied to influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in a 9.8-million-New Zealand dollar (6.86 million U.S. dollar) project to learn how to stop the spread of respiratory viruses, the University of Auckland announced on Monday.
The two-year project, Southern Hemisphere Influenza and Vaccine Effectiveness Research and Surveillance V (SHIVERS-V), is led by the University of Auckland in collaboration with the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) and features genomic testing of viruses, the detective work which became routine during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers will analyse thousands of swabs from patients with respiratory illnesses to discover how respiratory viruses enter and spread within New Zealand. This will help scientists model outbreaks and, most importantly, help design strategies to prevent them.
New Zealand is uniquely suited to examine the re-introduction and transmission of respiratory viruses like influenza and RSV. The success of New Zealand's COVID-19 measures has created a novel environment for this ambitious project, and its well-developed systems for tracking health data facilitate population-level research.
The current RSV epidemic is part of a respiratory-disease environment unlike any New Zealand has seen before. Sick children are filling hospital wards after COVID-19 social distancing and lockdown restrictions blocked the development of natural immunity to RSV. Scientists are also watching to see what happens next with influenza after COVID restrictions virtually eliminated the disease.
"As border restrictions are likely eased over the next two years, we will face a resurgence of respiratory viruses," said Professor Nikki Turner, medical director of the University of Auckland's Immunisation Advisory Centre (IMAC). "Understanding the viruses' patterns will help us predict and mitigate outbreaks to help protect whānau and communities in this new post-COVID world."
South Auckland is a focus of the research because of the social deprivation that exacerbates the spread of disease and the risk that the international airport will serve as a vector for disease transmission. Swabs of children at kohanga reo and early childhood learning centres will help to establish baseline rates of respiratory diseases.
Swab tests will also occur at doctors' offices in Wellington and Auckland and the emergency department of Middlemore Hospital. People in managed isolation facilities will be tested for respiratory diseases additional to COVID-19.
Professor Turner and Professor Peter McIntyre, who is affiliated with both Otago and Auckland universities, will helm the study. After leading previous SHIVERS projects starting in 2012 in Auckland and Wellington, virologist Sue Huang of ESR will play a key role. "Expanding the SHIVERS programme with information from the impact of closed borders is an important next step in helping tackle the viruses in a post-COVID world," said Huang. Enditem