Technology Covid-19: in Switzerland, a laboratory is preparing for tomorrow’s pandemics

Covid-19: in Switzerland, a laboratory is preparing for tomorrow’s pandemics




Spiez, in German-speaking Switzerland, is a charming little town by a lake, with cows, snow-capped mountains all around, postcard decor … and next door, a laboratory. As a new wave of Covid-19 sweeps across Europe, at the Spiez laboratory, the World Health Organization is preparing to face the pandemics of tomorrow. An ultra-secure laboratory that will become a “library” of the world’s most dangerous coronaviruses and viruses.

The general public does not know it, but it has been the United Nations reference laboratory for years. He was one of the first to detect the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the first to provide proof that Bashar Al-Assad was dropping sarin gas on his people in Syria. More recently, Spiez researchers also identified the substance that poisoned former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England, Novichok.

It is also a laboratory where the most dangerous viruses in the world, level P3 and P4, are stored, explains Olivier Engler, head of the Research and analysis of highly pathogenic agents group. “In P4 we have Ebola, Marburg virus, Lassa virus, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus. In P3, yellow fever, West Nile, hantavirus”, he explains. Without forgetting anthrax and plague. On the coronavirus side, the laboratory also already has a beautiful collection: those which have plagued the past fifteen years, Sars-CoV-1, Mers-CoV and the one who is at the origin of the current pandemic, Sars-CoV-2 , and several of its variants.

Under the aegis of the World Health Organization, this collection will soon be enriched with the most dangerous and contagious future variants. The virus mutates regularly. All the volunteer countries will therefore be able to send them here, in Spiez, to this future coronavirus bank, this future “virus library”. The goal is to be able to quickly provide trusted scientists around the world with either the genetic sequence of a virus (its identity card), or even a sample of this virus. WHO has learned lessons from the current pandemic.

View of the town of Spiez, Switzerland.  (SOLENNE LE HEN / FRANCEINFO / RADIO FRANCE)

At first, almost two years ago, every laboratory in the world was desperately trying to get a sample of Sars-CoV-2 from the Chinese. Researchers lost time there, says Olivier Engler. “The transport, the exchange between different institutes was quite difficult. There are often administrative obstacles”remembers the head of the Research and Analysis of Highly Pathogenic Agents group. “The idea is to really set up a system to quickly exchange”, he insists.

“If we can already organize everything in advance, we can accelerate the search for treatment, the search for the vaccine and also especially the development of new diagnostic methods, it was also very important at the start of the pandemic.”

Olivier Engler, head of the Research and analysis of highly pathogenic agents group

to franceinfo

All virus samples will be stored here, in the heart of the lab. “You can see two of our freezers at -80 degrees, dsmall bottles of 500 microliters per sample “, shows us Olivier Engler. As many viruses gathered in a single laboratory, it is also an important security. On the issue, Swiss officials remain discreet. “We have a lot of security mechanisms, I won’t go into details. We really have very high security here.”, Explain Olivier Engler. The building can also resist earthquakes.

Interior view of the laboratory in Spiez, Switzerland. & Nbsp;  (@Spiez lab)

But what if a virus were to come out of the laboratory, with a researcher infected by mistake for example? This is one of the hypotheses put forward for the appearance of Sars-CoV-2 in Wuhan in China. In Spiez, scientists must follow many steps to enter and leave the laboratory, explains Andreas Bucher, spokesperson for the Swiss Federal Office for the Protection of the Population, on which this laboratory depends. “It takes about 30 minutes to enter the laboratory and another 30 to 40 minutes to leave. This whole system of dressing, of undressing, of taking a chemical shower, it’s really very formalized”, he assures.

“The Spiez laboratory is almost 100 years old, we have been working with very, very dangerous agents for 100 years and we have never had a serious accident.

Andreas Bucher, spokesperson for the Swiss Federal Office for the Protection of the Population

to franceinfo

Within a few years, the WHO hopes to label other reference laboratories such as that of Spiez, with eventually one laboratory on each continent.



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