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The consortium for the standardization of influenza seroepidemiology (CONSISE): a global partnership to standardize influenza seroepidemiology and develop influenza investigation protocols to inform public health policy


Correspondence: Maria D. Van Kerkhove, MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling, Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Imperial College London, UK. E-mail: m.vankerkhove@imperial.ac.uk


CONSISE – The consortium for the Standardization of Influenza Seroepidemiology – is a global partnership to develop influenza investigation protocols and standardize seroepidemiology to inform health policy. This international partnership was formed in 2011 and was created out of a need, identified during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, for timely seroepidemiological data to better estimate pandemic virus infection severity and attack rates to inform policy decisions. CONSISE has developed into a consortium of two interactive working groups: epidemiology and laboratory, with a steering committee composed of individuals from several organizations. CONSISE has had two international meetings with more planned for 2013. We seek additional members from public health agencies, academic institutions and other interested parties.

During the 2009 influenza A(H1N1) pandemic (H1N1pdm09), seroepidemiological studies were undertaken to quantify the prevalence of pre-existing antibodies to and cumulative incidence of the new virus in the population, the proportion of infections that were asymptomatic and to estimate rates of infections in specific populations to inform decisions by policy makers on risk groups and the use of mitigation measures[1]. The results of dozens of seroepidemiological studies have become available in the past 2 years.[1-3] However, the majority of studies were performed sub-nationally based on convenience sampling, and many of the results emerged too late to be useful in informing policy-related debates, issues and decisions, specifically those around understanding risk groups for vaccination and age-specific severity of the pandemic virus.[4-6] Additionally, despite many H1N1pdm09 seroepidemiological studies being undertaken, the direct comparability of results was limited due to a lack of standardization in the epidemiological data collected, and the laboratory methods used to assess the presence of cross-reactive antibodies to and cumulative incidence of the H1N1pdm09 virus. Furthermore, there were more general concerns over the difficulties in ensuring quality assurance for seroepidemiological studies in most laboratories.[3, 7]

Recognizing these limitations, several institutions including the World Health Organization (WHO), Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USCDC), Imperial College London (ICL), National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC), UK Health Protection Agency (UKHPA), University of Hong Kong (UHK), WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza in Melbourne, Australia (WHO CC Melbourne), and others formed a partnership to develop best practices and standardize seasonal, pandemic and zoonotic influenza seroepidemiological methods. This partnership, now called CONSISE the Consortium for the Standardization of Influenza Seroepidemiology – (Figure 1) held its first international meeting in Ottawa in January 2011 organized by PHAC.[8]

The participants of the Ottawa meeting decided on a number of areas for improvement in conducting seroepidemiological studies including study design, prior laboratory and methodological standardization and laboratory quality assurance for serological assays.[8] A second international meeting was held in Stockholm in December 2011 hosted by ECDC.[9] Institutions including the WHO, ECDC, ICL, NIBSC, UKHPA, USCDC, UHK and WHOCC Melbourne played and are continuing to play key roles in the development of the work plan of CONSISE.

At the second international meeting in Stockholm, it was appreciated that considerable work needed to be undertaken to expand the scope of the work to encompass the development of protocols that will cover multiple objectives and functions around influenza and emerging respiratory infections. These objectives are being captured in the development of six generic seroepidemiological protocols for pandemic and epidemic influenza, seasonal influenza and zoonotic influenza (Table 1)[10]. Although generic, these protocols are being designed to be part of a comprehensive approach to include as much useful detail as possible, so that specific protocols for high-quality comparable studies can be produced with the fewest possible modifications. The six CONSISE protocols are based on existing influenza seroepidemiogical protocols, which have been used throughout the world (see Table 1). During both international meetings, it was appreciated that much joint work – both epidemiological and laboratory – is required in the areas of standardization, external quality assurance and cooperation to build on previous work in these areas to improve the quality of serological testing (Table 2).

Table 1. CONSISE Protocols under development
ProtocolPrimary objectivesDevelopment based ona
  1. a

    This is not an exhaustive list but meant to provide examples of existing and validated protocols used to generate draft detailed generic protocols.

Epidemic/pandemic influenzaLongitudinal cohort study of influenza infection during epidemic periodsDetermine age-specific cumulative incidence of infection during an influenza epidemicLongitudinal influenza seroepidemiological protocols from UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, FluScape in Guangzhou[11] and Vietnam[2]
Cross-sectional seroprevalence study of influenza prior and post-epidemic periodsDetermine age-specific cumulative incidence of infection with a novel influenza virus in the population Measure prevalence of cross-reactive antibodies to the novel virusNumerous cross-sectional seroprevalence studies conducted during the H1N1pdm09 pandemic[2]
Household transmission studies for pandemic influenzaEstimate household secondary infection risk, and factors associated with variation in the secondary infection riskFF100 protocols, household investigations conducted during the H1N1pdm09 pandemic from the UK, US, Hong Kong, South Africa and other countries
Characterize secondary cases including clinical presentation and asymptomatic fraction
Investigate serological response following confirmed influenza infection
Closed setting outbreak investigation protocol for pandemic influenzaDescribe the clinical spectrum of infection including the asymptomatic fractionNumerous outbreak investigations conducted during the H1N1pdm09 pandemic
Estimate overall clinical attack rates (by subgroup and clinical risk group)
Describe correlation between infection, disease and serology
Seasonal influenzaSeroepidemiology of human influenza infection using residual sera/convenience samples for establishing baselines and/or monitoring trends over timeEstimate population immune status/susceptibility to relevant influenza virusesProtocols from Norway, UK and others
Estimate incidence in previous seasons for the different relevant influenza viruses
Zoonotic influenzaOutbreak investigation of zoonotic infection in humans exposed to a confirmed sourceMeasure age-specific infection in relation to zoonotic exposure Identify (modifiable) risk factors for human infectionZoonotic source outbreak investigations from the Netherlands, China, Cambodia, Thailand and Bangladesh
Table 2. CONSISE Laboratory working group work plan
Topic Primary objectivesDevelopment based on
  1. NA, not applicable.

  2. a

    It was concluded at the Stockholm meeting to keep the widely used haemagglutination inhibition assay as the primary serology test in the laboratories.

StandardizationHaemagglutination inhibition assayaBased on current knowledge and current best practice, continue to use HI as the primary serology test. [7]
Microneutralization assayAgreement on a standard protocol for microneutralization assay protocols (2-day ELISA endpoint assay (GISRS protocol[12]) and 3-day HA endpoint assay)[12] and individual laboratory protocols
Neuraminidase inhibition assayEstablish standard neuraminidase inhibition assay in some of the consortium laboratoriesProtocols of Maryna Eichelberger (CBER/FDA)[13, 14]
International serology standardsTo discuss the need for development of further influenza international standards for HI assay and to encourage the wider use of the existing standards. [7]
Quality assessmentExploration of possibilities for external quality assessment for laboratories performing serological assays for influenzaTo explore possibilities for an external quality assessment scheme for serological assaysNA
CooperationLaboratory networkTo form a laboratory network to actively participate in the standardization workNA
Cooperation with those undertaking influenza serology work for regulatory purposes and for evaluation of the response to vaccinesTo collaborate with and inform the international actors involved in the regulatory and development work of influenza vaccines about the recommendations of this laboratory working groupNA

Under the leadership of an informal steering committee (see acknowledgements), the partnership has organized into laboratory and epidemiological working groups (Tables 1 and 2 outline current activities). The CONSISE steering committee consists of individuals from collaborating institutions in the consortium representing both laboratory and epidemiological influenza expertise and experience. The primary role of the steering committee is to ensure that the agreed work plan is enacted, specifically developing the protocols, undertaking laboratory work and preparing for the Options VIII conference in 2013. Core members of the steering committee are the conveners (EB and AN) together with the leaders of the protocol (MVK) and laboratory development (JW and OGE) aspects. ECDC will serve as the secretariat until the time of the Options VIII meeting in September 2013. There are numerous research institutions participating as members of the epidemiology and laboratory working groups, and the partnership is growing. Having set out many of the problems and offered some solutions in the first publication,[8] CONSISE has continued meeting via teleconferences and small focused face-to-face meetings. The next checkpoint will be a regional international meeting in Hong Kong in January 2013 with the presentation of the draft protocols from the epidemiological working group and results from the work plan of the laboratory working group. A 4th international meeting of CONSISE is being planned for the Options VIII Conference in September 2013 in Cape Town, South Africa.

Prior to the Options VIII conference, the protocols will undergo extensive revision and iteration with input from our many partners. We plan, at around the time of Options VIII, for the protocols to be made public in a draft format for open discussion, iteration and hopefully adoption with the wider scientific and public health community, with the intention to validate the protocols for seasonal and zoonotic influenza investigations prior to their use in a pandemic or the emergence of respiratory pathogens or emerging zoonoses. The CONSISE partnership welcomes interest in the partnership and comments on the protocols when available.

Figure 1.

Logo of CONSISE.


The authors would like to thank the members of the steering committee of CONSISE. In addition to the authors listed on this manuscript, the steering committee of CONSISE includes Anthony Mounts and Wenqing Zhang from WHO; Jackie Katz and Tim Uyeki from US CDC; Karen Laurie from the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, Melbourne, Australia; Peter White and Steven Riley from the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling, Imperial College London, UK; Benjamin Cowling and Malik Peiris from the University of Hong Kong, School of Public Health and Department of Community Medicine, Hong Kong; Katja Hoeschler and Richard Pebody from HPA, London, UK; Peter Horby from the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Hanoi, Vietnam; Holy Akwar from PHAC; Marianne van der Sande from RIVM and Olav Hungnes from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Oslo, Norway.

The authors would like to thank the members of CONSISE and the many research groups who shared their existing seroepidemiology protocols with CONSISE.

The authors would also like to thank Brydon Gerus, Thomas Gerbeaux, Chris Male and Neil Van Kerkhove for designing the logo.

MDVK would like to thank the MRC and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation for funding. No funding bodies had any role in the decision to publish.