The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) awarded the LNS – Microbiology department the HERA incubator grant (4.8 Million euros) to expand and widen the spectrum of activities provided by the LNS’ Luxembourg Genomic and Molecular Microbiology Unit (LUX-GEMM) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Microbiology department of the Laboratoire national de santé (LNS) in Luxembourg has hosted the national reference laboratory for acute respiratory infections since January 2021, and within a short time frame has implemented and optimised a sequencing protocol and analysis pipeline in the Luxembourg Genomic and Molecular Microbiology Unit (LUX-GEMM) to respond the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the HERA incubator grant, the LUX-GEMM unit plans to expand its current sequencing capacity to 2500 samples per week to allow faster investigation of SARS-CoV-2 variants, as well as the implementation of RT-PCR assay for identification of SARS-CoV-2 variants. This would enable the laboratory to screen all positive cases for new variants within 24h using RT-PCR.
Additionally, the LNS will expand its Biobanking capacity (LuxMicroBiobank), improve the automation of workflows, and establish enhanced data reporting for integrated genomic and epidemiologic analysis to sustainably control the epidemiological situation in Luxembourg.
The HERA incubator grant offers a major boost to the national drive in capacity building, enhances the cross-border pandemic preparedness and response cooperation, and it establishes LNS-Microbiology as one of the main public health microbiology hubs in Europe.
Several measures on national and European level
On 16 September 2021, the European Commission launched the ‘HERA (Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority) Incubator’ programme, which is the new EU bio-defense preparedness plan against SARS-CoV-2 variants. The European Commission and ECDC are therefore making substantial investments to increase Member States’ capacity to identify and characterise these variants using whole-genome sequencing (WGS) and Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) RT-PCR. The HERA incubator programme has the potential to transform the public health landscape in the EU/EEA by permitting a faster, comprehensive, and effective surveillance of infectious diseases.
The Ministry of Health nominated the LNS as project lead for the national capacity building grant view to the existing infrastructure and ongoing whole-genomic sequencing activities for SARS-CoV-2 since April 2020. The LNS is also participating in the development of regional data hubs in order to facilitate the timely reporting of WGS and RT-PCR data to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). This data is furthermore shared on public scientific domains such as GISAID or the European Nucleotide Archive (ENA).
Know-how for future sanitarian crises
Dr. Tamir Abdelrahman, head of the LNS Microbiology department, explains how essential the European exchange and cooperation is for public health and pandemic preparedness, especially in times of crisis: “Being part of the HERA programme will help us and our European partners to transform evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic to a public health laboratory response model for any future potential health crises. We are expecting high-level coordination by the newly developed capacity under the HERA incubator grant to ensure a constant exchange of information and expertise between member states of the European Union and beyond.”
Recognition and motivation
Prof. Dr. Friedrich Mühlschlegel, LNS Director, also considers the nomination as recognition of excellence on the part of the European Commission: “In recent years, the LNS has undergone multiple efforts to become one of the major references in Luxembourg’s health system, aiming to offer its inhabitants the best possible services and care. The fact that we have been awarded the HERA incubator grant is a beautiful appreciation of our work and motivation with regards to our shared ambition as a team of experts to serve the country and the people.”
Capacity building and preparedness
Dr. Thomas Dentzer, Chief Strategy Officer of the Directorate of Health Luxembourg, highlights the importance of capacity expansion to increase resilience in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic: “To overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and to prepare for future public health crisis it is essential to widen and expand our genomic and epidemiologic analysis capability. Research and innovation is the cornerstone of the HERA Incubator programme and Luxembourg is committed to advancing its medical technologies. With a better understanding of new COVID-19 variants and with an expanded capacity to screen positive COVID-19 cases for new variants, we strengthen the resilience of our health system.”
Dr. Jean-Claude Schmit, Director of Health: “HERA will enable EU to anticipate threats and manage health emergencies through a unique health security structure. The last two years of a devastating pandemic have taught us that medical counter-measures are key to combating health threats and cooperation is the only way ahead. HERA is the representation that we need to think about health policy as a cooperation act to make us stronger and able to make a real difference for the health security of our citizens.”
Paulette Lenert, Minister of Health, adds: “The LNS has played a key role and gained a lot of new knowledge and expertise from the very onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are therefore confident that the participation in the HERA programme will enable us to continue to make a long-term mark in this regard and are pleased to contribute to its success.”
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