Charité Experts Support Colombian SARS-CoV-2 Diagnostic Efforts

During a visit to the border region between Colombia and Venezuela, a member of Prof. Jan Felix Drexler’s team demonstrates how to perform a rapid antigen test. © Charité | Edmilson de Oliveira Filho

Colombia currently houses several million refugees and migrants, of whom 1.8 million are from Venezuela. The success of the country’s pandemic control measures will depend on the careful monitoring of infection levels, including within this particularly vulnerable population. Experts from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin will support the efforts of local health care authorities by delivering SARS-CoV-2 tests and training laboratory staff to use them. A particular emphasis will be placed on monitoring the Mu variant, which is currently under investigation by the World Health Organization (WHO) and has spread widely throughout Colombia. This project is receiving approximately € 2 million in funding, which is being provided by the ‘Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH’ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

Colombia is home to the largest number of internally displaced persons in the world. According to UN Refugee Agency figures for late 2020, ongoing violence involving a number of armed groups active within Colombia has left 8.2 million people internally displaced within their own country. The majority of those affected are peasant farmers, indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities. This situation is further exacerbated by the political crisis in Venezuela, which is having a major impact upon Colombia. In addition to having welcomed more than 1.8 million refugees and migrants from its neighboring country, Colombia is also being used as a transit route by hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans hoping to reach other countries.

“Because of the precarious conditions and situations in which they live, all of these people are at particular risk from infectious diseases,” says project lead Prof. Dr. Jan Felix Drexler from Charité’s Institute of Virology. “However, as a highly mobile population, they also contribute to the spread of pathogens. High levels of infection in highly mobile groups of people can place enormous pressure on the host country’s health care system, particularly during the current pandemic. Reliable diagnostic methods which enable the accurate monitoring of infection levels are therefore important for effective pandemic control and the protection of residents, refugees and migrants.”

Prof. Drexler and his team will be supporting the Colombian authorities in this endeavor, working in collaboration with the GIZ’s ‘SI Frontera’ project, which is already providing assistance on the ground. The delivery of approximately 500,000 SARS-CoV-2 PCR tests will form part of their mission. Planned for early 2022, this delivery is intended to support diagnostic testing throughout the refugee host communities which can be found in Bogotá and along the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

Detection efforts will place a particular focus on the Mu variant. “First identified in Colombia, the Mu variant has spread widely throughout the country, and has now also been detected in dozens of other countries, including the United States,” explains Prof Drexler. “Initial research results suggest that the Mu variant is better at avoiding the immune system than the original SARS-CoV-2 variant. Should this be confirmed, it would mean that people are more likely to contract the infection even if they have been vaccinated against the disease or recovered from it. We will therefore have to keep a close eye on Mu, just as we are doing with the much-discussed Omicron variant.”

There is one problem, however. While capable of detecting infection, there is not a single commercially available coronavirus test which is also capable of identifying whether the infection was caused by Mu or by another of the currently circulating variants. The researchers are therefore planning to develop a new PCR-based test, which will be capable of differentiating between Mu and the other virus variants of relevance to Colombia, such as Beta, Delta and Lambda. Due the speed of its emergence, Omicron will also be included. The test will require just one swab sample and 90 minutes and will be able to establish whether an individual has been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and, if so, which variant caused their infection. The Charité team of experts will also support the local authorities with antibody testing, which uses blood samples to determine just how prevalent SARS-CoV-2 infections have become.

Knowledge transfer is another integral part of this project. The Charité team will provide training to laboratory staff from the Universidad Industrial de Santander (UIS) and Instituto Nacional de Salud (INS), Colombia’s counterpart to the Robert Koch Institute. Training will cover diagnostic techniques and working with infectious viruses. “Colombia is doing its utmost to vaccinate and treat refugees and migrants from Venezuela,” emphasizes Prof. Drexler. “Thanks to the laboratory materials and newly qualified staff, the local authorities will now also be in a position to decide which virus variants are currently in circulation and whether the vaccines are effective against them. This will provide political leaders with an important evidence base on which to make decisions regarding the implementation or cessation of measures. It will also provide essential data to inform the global effort against the pandemic – a highly topical issue given our recent experience with Omicron. That way the project will also help to promote public health back home, both in Germany and the rest of Europe.”

The implementation of this project will be facilitated by structures established as part of an earlier project and by the team’s good level of knowledge about the country and its language. The virology specialists have also been building COVID-19 testing capacity along the Colombian-Venezuelan border. This initiative, which focuses on rapid antigen testing, has been in operation since late 2020, and has also received nearly € 2 million in GIZ funding on behalf of the BMZ.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Prof. Drexler and his team have been providing expert advice to many countries across Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. Working in collaboration with the GIZ, their missions have seen them deployed to: Benin, Ghana, Mauritania, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, the Republic of Moldova, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. In recognition of their contribution to Peru’s efforts against the coronavirus pandemic, Prof. Drexler and GIZ mission leader Dr. Michael Nagel have been awarded the Plaque of the Congress of Peru. Charité’s experts are also committed to maintaining an open dialog on pandemic-related issues with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The German Federal Foreign Office is supporting this effort. By sharing their knowledge and providing scientific advice, Charité’s experts are assisting these countries in their efforts to deal with the pandemic.

Drexler Laboratory – Charité’s Virus Epidemiology Unit 
Led by Prof. Dr. Jan Felix Drexler, the Virus Epidemiology team studies emerging viruses in both humans and animal reservoirs. The Unit focuses on the diagnosis of novel viruses in tropical countries and their study using evolutionary biology-based methods. While the Unit is based at the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF), much of its work relies on fieldwork in Europe, Latin America and Africa. Over the past few years, the Drexler laboratory has helped to elucidate key epidemiological questions on the spread and pathogenesis of the Latin American Zika virus, advanced the development of diagnostic techniques for the yellow fever virus and other mosquito-borne viruses, and contributed to the discovery of SARS-related coronaviruses in European bats.

The SARS-CoV-2 Mu variant
The Mu variant was first detected in Colombia in January 2021. A major wave of infections in mid-2021 saw Mu outcompete other virus variants, eventually becoming the predominant strain. In September, the WHO placed Mu on its list of ‘variants of interest’, indicating that the variant has the potential for global spread but has so far only been detected as part of isolated outbreaks in specific regions. Until now, Germany has only recorded sporadic cases. According to initial data published in November, antibodies found in the blood of vaccinated and recovered individuals are less effective at stopping the variant from infecting human cells than either the Alpha, Beta, Gamma or Delta variants.

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