NEW YORK – The EU has invested in a new mobile laboratory project to deploy novel mosquito-monitoring technology, along with third-generation sequencing instruments and other molecular testing platforms. The initiative, called Mobvec, also involves a citizen science tool for allowing individuals to submit surveillance data on mosquito populations.
Altogether, Mobvec, which will commence July 1 with a budget of €3 million ($3.3 million) and run through June 2027, will see the development of a new kind of mobile laboratory to support public health responses to vector-borne diseases.
"The technologies are not directly related, but we made this link between them," commented Jean-Luc Gala, director of the Center for Applied Molecular Technologies (CTMA) at UCLouvain in Belgium, noting the multiple platforms that will be included in the envisioned lab.
In his work at UCLouvain, Gala pioneered the Biological Light Fieldable Laboratory for Emergencies (B-LiFE), a mobile laboratory that was deployed in West Africa during an Ebola outbreak, and again during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the current project, the target is mosquito-borne arboviruses with a focus on the EU, as invasive disease-carrying mosquitoes are increasingly present in Europe, due to the transport of goods, international travel, and climate change. While Europe might have the image of being better connected, with perhaps easier links to centralized testing laboratories than in West Africa, vector-borne diseases can pop up in remote areas.
"Outbreaks can happen in places where local authorities do not have a lot of resources," said João Encarnação, chief business officer at Irideon, the Barcelona, Spain-based technology company that is leading Mobvec. If an outbreak were to happen just 50 kilometers from Irideon, for example, it would be a challenge for health authorities, he said. "No country in the world has public health centers with the capacity to respond to this kind of outbreak."
Irideon has developed an optical sensor that relies on infrared imaging and machine-learning tools to identify and define mosquitoes according to species, sex, age, and viral infection. Mosquitoes are trapped and scanned using the sensor. "It tells you about the kinetic and morphological properties of the insect," said Encarnação. "It's like an artificial entomologist."
Currently, Encarnação said, public health authorities in cities like Barcelona rely on traps scattered throughout the city. Personnel collect the samples, which are analyzed manually, leading to a lag in identifying the presence of potentially disease-causing mosquitoes, and thus any public efforts to control the mosquito population. "They usually know what happened on a certain day 15 to 20 days later," Encarnação remarked.
This can have a negative impact on public health. "Lives are being lost, people are getting sick, and this has a huge social and economic tool," said Encarnação. "The key to prevent this type of epidemic is to monitor and control the population of the vectors."
This is where Encarnação sees an opportunity for mobile laboratories like the one that Mobvec is developing. Using Irideon's sensors, scientists will be able to monitor mosquito populations in real time, creating vector risk maps of insects and larvae, and then integrating clinical and diagnostic data from laboratories to improve surveillance of outbreaks. Mobvec also wants to make use of Mosquito Alert, a citizen science application created by several Barcelona-area research centers, that allows individuals to report mosquito data. Such data could then be used to create better informed risk maps, said Encarnação.
Then there are the molecular testing technologies. According to Gala, Mobvec will also use third-generation sequencing platforms, and Oxford Nanopore Technologies' GridIon and MinIon instruments in particular. "Probably more the GridIon," he said, "because it allows us to test more samples at once." Launched in 2017, Oxford Nanopore's GridIon is a desktop sequencer that can run up to five flow cells at a time.
Mobvec will also make use of quantitative PCR as well as an internally developed testing system that relies on loop-mediated isothermal amplification instead of PCR. It includes a homemade, colorimetric reader, he said, that has already been validated in field work in Africa.
According to Gala, Mobvec will make use of sequencing for disease surveillance to track pathogenic vector-borne viral species, identify their genotype, and follow up on their genetic evolution, in terms of mutations, virulence, and resistance. The molecular platforms included in Mobvec will be used mostly for diagnosing people suspected of carrying vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, dengue, West Nile, chikungunya, or yellow fever.
"People will be directed to the lab, as if they would go to the hospital," said Encarnação. "Samples will be collected and run to see what disease they have, and the entomologists will get samples." By being able to quickly identify outbreaks and outbreak-causing mosquitoes, public health authorities can also improve their efforts to control the mosquito population.
To create the lab, the partners will seek to streamline logistics and ensure minimum standards for safety, security and quality. "When dealing with potentially harmful viruses and mosquitoes, the point is not to contaminate the laboratory staff nor people around who are not yet victims," said Gala. He added that there needs to be a mechanism created for how mobile labs are activated, who requests the deployment, and how it is moved to the field and maintained there for the time needed.
By the end of Mobvec, the consortium partners will seek to trial the lab in a field environment. According to Gala, though, the concept is not to go into mass production with the lab but to create a flexible lab that can be assembled on an as-needed basis. He noted that the B-LiFE lab also has the capability of satellite and terrestrial communication, so it can send signals in areas where there is no internet. "This is about combining the pieces needed for the mission you want to fulfill," said Gala.
Mobvec is one of several EU-funded efforts to create mobile laboratories to combat disease outbreaks underway. Last year, a three-year project called Mobilise commenced with a budget of €4.4 million. Led by investigators at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany, Mobilise aims to create mobile labs capable of handling biosafety level 4 pathogens, like Crimean-Congo virus and West Nile virus. Like Mobvec, it also aims to include PCR and next-generation sequencing platforms in its toolkit.
Gala said that the EU is investing more in mobile laboratories because of the "insecurity of the world." He cited climate change and the accompanying migration of dangerous mosquitoes into Europe as the catalyst for these increased investments.