National Serosurveillance Programme

What is the National Serosurveillance Programme?

The National Serosurveillance Programme (NSP) is the national programme for serosurveillance in Ireland. It was established in 2021 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposal to establish the programme, which was endorsed by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), followed publication of the first national population seroprevalence study for COVID-19 (SCOPI). Currently, the focus of the NSP is COVID-19. In time, the NSP will also monitor non-COVID diseases of public health concern.

The NSP is managed by the Seroepidemiology Unit (SEU) in the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) and governed by a Steering Committee of experts with relevant experience and expertise.

What is serosurveillance?

Serosurveillance is the testing of blood samples for the presence of antibodies against a particular disease, due to past infection or vaccination, in the general population. It gives public health policy makers the information they need to make better and more cost-effective decisions. Data from serosurveillance can be used to:

  • Estimate levels of past infection with, or protection against, vaccine-preventable and/or infectious diseases in the population
  • Predict potential outbreaks
  • Identify age groups at risk
  • Plan future vaccination programmes

Serosurveillance data complements other important public health information such as notifications, hospitalisations, immunisations and information on deaths.

Who is part of the NSP?

The National Serosurveillance Programme is made up of four partners:

HPSC Organogram

1. Seroepidemiology Unit (SEU)

The SEU is a multi-disciplinary team in the HPSC. It is the co-ordinating centre with overall responsibility for serosurveillance activities in Ireland. The SEU team:

  • Coordinates the programme and decide which diseases are tested for
  • Oversees the collection of samples
  • Analyses serosurveillance data
  • Produces and publishes reports
  • Establishes connections with other serosurveillance programmes

2. National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL)

NVRL is Ireland’s national virology reference centre. NVRL decides on and provides access to the most appropriate serology testing methods. Serology is the study of blood for the presence of specific antibodies. Laboratories participating in the NSP (see below) send anonymised left-over samples to NVRL who analyse the samples and interpret the results.

3. Laboratory Surveillance Network (LSN)

The LSN is a network of eight hospital biochemistry laboratories throughout Ireland that contribute anonymised, left-over blood (serum or plasma) samples for analysis as part of the NSP. The current members of the LSN are:

Beaumont HospitalUniversity Hospital Galway
Cork University Hospital CHI at Temple Street
University Hospital Limerick St Vincent’s University Hospital
Letterkenny University Hospital Tallaght University Hospital

It is planned that more hospital biochemistry laboratories will join the LSN in the future.

4. Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS)

In October 2021, the NSP and IBTS began collaborating on a 12-week study to examine COVID-19 antibody levels, due to infection or vaccination, in adult blood donor samples. This data was used to inform public health actions and vaccination strategies. The study has been extended until the end of 2022.

Every fortnight, approximately 500 anonymised samples, from three fixed IBTS sites (2 in Dublin, 1 in Cork), are collected and tested by IBTS with assistance from St James’ Laboratory. The data is analysed by the SEU, in collaboration with IBTS, and used to produce anonymised, publicly available serosurveillance reports. The first report is due out in April 2022.

How does the NSP work?

The NSP Steering Committee advises on the vaccine-preventable and/or infectious diseases of public health concern to be monitored through serosurveillance.

Once a disease has been identified for serosurveillance, participating labs identify and retrieve blood samples in line with the sampling requirements as specified by the SEU. All samples used for surveillance are left-over (known as residual) and have already been tested as part of medical care in a GP surgery and would be otherwise discarded.

The laboratories extract a portion of the sample, known as an aliquot, and arrange for it to be sent securely to NVRL for testing. NVRL analyses and interprets the data before sending its findings to the SEU. The SEU then prepares and publishes accessible reports on the HPSC website that clearly communicate the results to policy makers and members of the public.

The data are also presented in the Seroepidemiology of COVID-19 Data Hub. To view the hub, please visit https://seroepi-hpscireland.hub.arcgis.com/

How is the data processed?

All data held or stored by the National Serosurveillance Programme are anonymous and not personally identifiable.

Specimens selected for use in the NSP are given a unique ID number before leaving the laboratory. This unique ID number is only used by the NSP, and is not linked to the laboratory’s information management system, known as LIMS, in any way. This means it is not possible to link any sample used for serosurveillance to any information that may identify someone. The following information is the only information that is collected for each sample:

  • Date of collection
  • Date of birth
  • Sex
  • County of residence

The laboratory then sends the samples to NVRL in a sealed package, with the ID number and date of sample collection only. No personal identifiers are included. NVRL disposes of all NSP samples after testing. At the same time, the above information points only are sent to the SEU. Data sent between the LSN, NVRL and SEU, is sent electronically and securely.

Find out more about HPSC’s privacy policies.

More information

You can contact the National Serosurveillance Programme at: seu.programme@hpsc.ie.

 

Last updated: 11th March 2022