Since the setting up of Institute for Medical Research in 1900, the main viral diseases that were recognised to exist then in this country were rabies and smallpox. Diagnosis of these diseases at that time was made on clinical grounds due to the unavailability of established laboratory diagnostic techniques. Rabies laboratory diagnosis was established in IMR in 1911. Until the mid of 1940’s, the main contributions of IMR in the field of virology were for diagnosing rabies, laboratory tests for potency of yellow fever viral vaccines and preparation of smallpox and rabies vaccines.
In 1949, when the pathogenic role of viruses became increasingly prominent, the pathology department’s scope was broadened to include diagnostic section for important viral diseases such as small pox, viral pneumonia and viral encephalitis. Research and diagnostic work in viral diseases continued to progress in the pathology department until the new Division of Virus Research and Medical Zoology was formed on 23rd March 1953. The mission of the virus laboratory was “the isolation and identification of viruses causing diseases in man and animals and the study of the distribution of antibodies to viruses as an index of their importance or life history in the community”. One of the first research projects carried out was study on effectiveness of yellow fever vaccine in community exposed to other flaviruses.
In 1954, the first influenza A virus was isolated from throat washings of a patient and in 1966, the division was designated as the National Influenza Centre recognised by WHO. As time progressed new diagnostics and research areas in virology field were ventured.
Current focus of the Virology Unit is on research pertaining to locally important medical viruses, aiming to determine the epidemiology of the viruses and the development of new technology for rapid diagnosis of these viruses.
The Unit also continued to provide laboratory support in viral diagnostics for most government hospitals and clinics in the country. From 2009 to 2010, the Unit was actively involved in investigating several outbreaks in Malaysia including chikungunya, dengue, HFMD and Influenza A (H1N1) pandemic. The Unit also continues to monitor oseltamivir-resistance and genetic mutation of the pandemic H1N1 virus.
The Unit participated in the External Quality Assurance Programs (EQAP) organized by WHO, RCPA (Australia) and NRL (Australia) for various serological, viral isolation and molecular tests. The National Poliovirus Laboratory in Virology Unit received full from WHO since the year 1998 and in addition, in 2010, was accredited and entrusted to perform the Vaccine Intratypic Differentiation (ITD) testing and testing for Vaccine-Derived Poliovirus by WHO. Also in 2010, the National Japanese Encephalitis laboratory received full accreditation by WHO.
The Unit also serves as the National AIDS Reference Laboratory (NARL) for the study of cases with difficult or unresolved serology, provides consultancy services for babies born to HIV positive women and conducts two National External Quality Assessment (NEQAS) for HIV antibody screening centres in government hospitals.
The Unit is involved in training of post-graduate candidates in the DMM and DAP&E courses and also MSc, PhD and MPath students from local universities. The Virology Unit also offers training to other laboratories and hospitals in the country related to laboratory techniques in diagnosis of diseases.
Apart from diagnostic, research and training activities, the Unit also carried out surveillance programme on circulating dengue virus serotype, Nipah, JE, influenza and hand, foot and mouth diseases for Ministry of Health.