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viral and rickettsial disease laboratory

About the Viral and Rickettsial Diseases Laboratory (VRDL)


The Viral and Rickettsial Disease Laboratory (VRDL) was the first state public health virology laboratory in the United States, established in 1939 as the Influenza Research Laboratory with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. The VRDL’s first laboratory director was Dr. Monroe Eaton and first began offering diagnostic laboratory services in 1943. In 1947, Dr. Edwin H. Lennette became the director of the VRDL, which at that time offered laboratory testing for 14 viral agents. With Dr. Lennette’s leadership and commitment to developing and evaluating new viral assays, by 1976 the VRDL had the capacity to identify more than 300 viral or rickettsial pathogens/infections. The laboratory reference manual, Diagnostic Procedures for Viral, Rickettsial, and Chlamydial Infections, edited by Dr. Lennette and several other VRDL microbiology scientists, is still in wide use today. Dr. Lennette retired from the VRDL after 31 years and was succeeded by Dr. Richard Emmons in 1978, who led the VRDL until 1994. The VRDL Directors thereafter include: Dr. Michael Ascher 1994 – 2001; Dr. Michael Janda in 2001 – 2002; Dr. Carol Glaser 2002 – 2009; Dr. David Schnurr 2009 – 2011; Dr. Sharon Messenger 2011 – 2012; Dr. Dongxiang Xia 2012 - 2017; Dr. Carl Hanson in 2017 – 2019 (Dr. Hanson is the current VRDL CLIA Laboratory Director). In January 2019, Dr. Debra Wadford became the current VRDL Laboratory Director. The VRDL has been a highly recognized resource for laboratory diagnostics, consultation, training, and research with active collaborations and partnerships with local public health laboratories, epidemiologists, clinicians, academicians, and other partners. 

Mission Statement

It is the mission of the Viral and Rickettsial Disease Laboratory to provide high quality laboratory services and testing for viral and rickettsial pathogens of public health significance. This includes providing laboratory tests for known, emerging, and re-emerging pathogens as well as providing confirmatory and reference testing, consultations, and technical assistance for local health jurisdictions (LHJs). The VRDL conducts research required for the diagnosis, investigation, and control of viral diseases in California and functions as the public health laboratory for LHJs that do not have public health laboratory services available locally. As part of the Department's laboratory science training program, VRDL trains local public health laboratory personnel in state-of-the-art standardized laboratory procedures.  

VRDL Sections

The VRDL is composed of five Sections as follows:

The Vaccine Preventable Diseases and Herpes Viruses Section (VPDHS) diagnostic testing for measles, mumps, rubella, varicella zoster (MMRV), other herpesviruses, and spotted fever group rickettsial pathogens. The VPDHS established and coordinates lab networks within the state to perform measles and mumps PCR testing at the local level. The VPDHS performs specialized testing to strain type MMRV and hepatitis A viruses to support outbreak investigations and inform public health decisions.

The Respiratory and Gastroenteritis Diseases Section (RGDS) performs diagnostic testing to identify 21 viral respiratory pathogens including influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, enterovirus, and adenovirus. The RGDS supports and coordinates the Respiratory Laboratory Network (RLN), a network of more than 24 PHLs throughout California whose mission is to provide testing for influenza at the local level and to respond to surge capacity events. The RGDS conducts testing of suspect acute viral gastroenteritis cases and outbreaks for norovirus, sapovirus, astrovirus, rotavirus, and the gastroenteric adenoviruses. The RGDS supports and coordinates the 24 local PHL Norovirus Laboratory Network for local testing of suspect norovirus outbreaks.

The Zoonotic and Vectorborne Diseases Section (ZVBDS) is responsible for the identification of rabies virus and other animal and vector-borne diseases (e.g., arboviruses such as West Nile Virus [WNV] and Zika virus) to support clinical diagnosis as well as disease surveillance. Methods for detection include fluorescent antibody and direct detection tests and molecular detection assays including strain typing of viruses such as rabies and Sin Nombre virus.

The Molecular Immunoserology Section (MIS) serves as a statewide reference laboratory for HIV and other retroviruses and provides extensive consultation to local public health labs and clinicians throughout the state. The Section also provides neutralization testing for arboviruses including WNV, St. Louis encephalitis virus, dengue virus and Zika virus, among others. Research activities include the development of new assays to enhance testing efficiencies such as the microneutralization assay and Antibody detection by agglutination-PCR (ADAP).

The Data, Testing, Epidemiology, and Quality Support (DTEQS) Section is composed of staff who cohesively support the operations and functions of the VRDL, including the Quality Assurance Manager, the Biosafety Officer, the LIMS Specialist, the Laboratory Support Unit (LSU), and a unique set of staff, the Medical and Epidemiology Liaisons (MELs) Unit who serve at the interface of the laboratory and our clients, stakeholders, and partners, facilitating communication about laboratory testing and results reporting, specimen submissions, and other information pertaining to VRDL and its services. The MELs Unit also coordinates statewide virologic surveillance activities and coordinates/organizes the diagnostic virology portion of the California Public Health Microbiology training program.  

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