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How COVID-19 created dramatic changes in a 'winter virus'

Vijay Dhanasekaran published a major study with colleagues from the University of Sydney highlighting the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in the emergence of new patterns of winter viruses in Australia.


Human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is an important cause of acute respiratory infection with the most severe disease in the young and elderly. Non-pharmaceutical interventions and travel restrictions for controlling COVID-19 have impacted the circulation of most respiratory viruses including RSV globally, particularly in Australia, where during 2020 the normal winter epidemics were notably absent. However, in late 2020, unprecedented widespread RSV outbreaks occurred, beginning in spring, and extending into summer across two widely separated regions of the Australian continent, New South Wales (NSW) and Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in the east, and Western Australia. Through genomic sequencing we reveal a major reduction in RSV genetic diversity following COVID-19 emergence with two genetically distinct RSV-A clades circulating cryptically, likely localised for several months prior to an epidemic surge in cases upon relaxation of COVID-19 control measures. The NSW/ACT clade subsequently spread to the neighbouring state of Victoria and to cause extensive outbreaks and hospitalisations in early 2021. These findings highlight the need for continued surveillance and sequencing of RSV and other respiratory viruses during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, as mitigation measures may disrupt seasonal patterns, causing larger or more severe outbreaks.

The epidemiology of RSV detections in three Australian states—New South Wales (NSW), Western Australia (WA), and Victoria (VIC).


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