Virus Reference Laboratory

Role of Virus Reference Laboratory

What is the Virus Reference Laboratory?

The Virus Reference Laboratory provides a national diagnostic service for Ireland, using a wide range of methods to identify viral infections in humans and to determine anti-viral immune status (our immunity to viruses). It is situated on campus at University College Dublin (UCD) and is closely linked to the Colleges Department of Medical Microbiology.

What is the role of the Virus Reference Laboratory?

If you attend your doctor with a suspected infectious illness they may take a sample or swab which may then be sent to the Virus Reference Laboratory in order to determine what sort of infection you might have. Samples that might be tested include blood, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from your spine, faeces, urine, respiratory secretions, nose and throat swabs, eye swabs, skin lesions, and autopsy and biopsy specimens.

The amount of virus in your system is generally at a maximum at or shortly before the appearance of symptoms. Specimens for virus testing should therefore be collected and sent as soon as possible after the onset of symptoms.

The Virus Reference Laboratory is also the national flu centre, where scientists and laboratory technicians collect information about any new or variant strains of flu detected and send this information to the World Health Organisation, which then confirms the results. This is very important as it ensures that new strains of flu virus are identified immediately and vaccines can be prepared in time so that outbreaks of flu can be prevented.

The laboratory also provides a weekly communicable disease report (report on the diseases that can be passed on from a person, animal or the environment to a susceptible person). It details significant test results obtained on specimens received in the Virus Reference Laboratory during the preceding week. These might include HIV, rubella, mumps, measles, flu and hepatitis A, B and C test results, for example.

This weekly data is provisional, however. It is merely intended to provide a rapid means of alerting public health officials and clinicians to infections prevalent in the community.

The VRL also provides an out-of-hours service for:

The VRL is specifically concerned with the production and maintenance of cell cultures (growing of cells in vitro) for use in viral isolation (detecting viruses).

What blood tests are carried out at the Virus Reference Laboratory?

There are many tests carried out at the Virus Reference Laboratory. Some of the more familiar tests include:

Certain blood tests carried out at the Laboratory are based on the reaction between antibodies and antigens. They are used either to detect antibodies (blood proteins that counteract the effects of some invading infections) or detect antigens (a substance, such as a bacteria, that causes antibodies to be produced).

It takes time for a person to build up antibodies to an invading infection or disease, however. Antibodies are specific to the infection and a rise in their number indicates that the person has developed that particular infection.

Therefore these tests play an important role in the management of viral infections, as they can be used to make the diagnosis even when it is impossible to isolate the virus.

This involves screening a person’s blood sample for certain antibodies which, if present, indicate that the person is immune to that infection, eg. a blood test to determine immunity to rubella.

The detection of antibodies for viruses in the blood sample indicates that the person has been infected with a given virus. For example, a person with HIV can be tested for antibodies to that virus which, if present, indicate that the person has been exposed to it.

How much does sample testing cost?

It is estimated that the cost of testing a sample is about IR£30, including such costs as the technician’s time, for example. Certain tests, notably HIV antibody tests, are charged for when carried out for commercial purposes. Examples include tests for insurance, visa and employment purposes. The current fee for a HIV test under these circumstances is IR£15.

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