The multidisclipinary viral zoonoses research unit at University of Helsinki targets emerging and re-emerging infections – particularly viral zoonoses, including arboviruses. We study their evolution, epidemiology, diagnostics, ecology and host-virus interactions from molecular to population level. We embrace the OneHealth concept and the vision that apart from current palette of diseases and its changes, mankind is increasingly confronting new emerging infections due to environmental changes, globalization – yet with new technologies to study, diagnose and battle them.
In the COVID-19 pandemic situation, much of our research focus has now been shifted to target immediate research needs to detect, survey, battle and understand SARS-CoV2 infection. Currently, we are e.g. performing and developing antibody test, analyzing full-genomes from patient samples, screening for therapeutic drugs (already shown to be safe in man), including cloning antibodies from patient samples for use as inhibitors, and performing the biosafety-level 3 laboratory work in many collaborative projects requiring growth of infectious SARS-CoV2 virus.
Beyond SARS-CoV2, we have projects involving e.g. alphaviruses, flaviviruses (such as tick-borne encephalitis (TBE), zika and dengue viruses), arenaviruses and hantaviruses. We are studying the emergence of vector-borne viruses in the context of climate-change (VECLIMIT project, AoF), as well as the distribution of mosquitoes and ticks, and the virome (all the viruses) they carry. This relates to projects of virus discovery and microbiome analyses, with use of sequencing and bioinformatics to detect e.g. new viruses from patients, arthropods and animals including wildlife. We target particularly Finland and Kenya, where we are working together with KAVI institute of University of Nairobi for preparedness of emerging Infections in Kenya.
As examples of highlights, we provided crucial evidence showing that congenital infection of zika virus causes fetal brain damage (Driggers et al NEJM 2016), demonstrated a new Bombali ebolavirus is Kenyan bats (Forbes et al 2019), and have shown that apart from “normal” European sheep ticks (Ixodes ricinus) and European TBE, also “taiga ticks” (Ixodes persulcatus) and the Siberian TBE virus circulate in Finland, and the virus was introduced to separate foci in the capital region multiple times decades ago (Smura et al EMI 2019), .
The unit is led by professor Olli Vapalahti and is affiliated to Faculties of both Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, as well as HUSLAB (Helsinki University Hospital Laboratory). Other PIs affiliated to the unit include Tarja Sironen, Jussi Hepojoki, Tomas Strandin and Eili Huhtamo. The research is funded by e.g. Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation, Helsinki University Central Hospital Funds, Academy of Finland and Jusélius Foundation. We are utilizing next generation sequencing and metagenomics to develop virus diagnostics and discovery, and run research with special pathogens at Biosafety level 3 laboratories, and can provide these as services or collaborations.