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Institute of Molecular Virology and Cell Biology (IMVZ)

WOAH and National Reference Laboratory for Rabies

Rabies is one of the oldest known virus-related infectious diseases (zoonosis) of the central nervous system that can be transmitted from animals to humans and is spread worldwide.

The causative agents of rabies are lyssaviruses, which belong to the genus Lyssavirus of the family Rhabdoviridae of the order Mononegavirales. Currently, 17 recognized and four putative lyssavirus species are known.

Bats (Chiroptera) are the actual reservoirs for lyssaviruses; 18 of the lyssaviruses known to date occur exclusively in bats or fruit bats. Bat-associated lyssaviruses have limited geographical and host ranges, and transmission to humans and animals is rare.

Rabies virus (RABV), the prototype of the lyssaviruses, is of particular importance from a public health perspective. It is the causative agent of the globally occurring "classical rabies", for which mesocarnivores form the natural reservoir. From an epidemiological point of view, a distinction is made between urban and sylvatic rabies. The latter describes rabies transmitted by wild carnivores (fox, raccoon, raccoon dog, mongoose, skunk), while dogs (Canis canis) are the main reservoir for urban rabies. In both cases, the rabies virus is also transmitted to other animals and humans.

According to WHO estimates, tens of thousands of people still die from dog-mediated (urban) rabies every year, especially in Africa and Asia. This is why it is often referred to as a neglected zoonosis.

Thanks to intensive control programs, fox rabies, which is prevalent in Europe, has been eradicated in large parts of the continent. Many countries in Western and Central Europe, including Germany, are internationally recognized as rabies-free.

The tasks of the National Reference Laboratory for Rabies are defined in the National Rabies Control Ordinance (TW-VO, as amended) in conjunction with a decision of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture dated July 8, 1997:

  • To undertake consultative work for federal and state veterinary authorities upon request and provide expertise for surveillance and rabies control
  • To conduct and coordinate research on lyssavirus diagnosis, pathogenesis, epidemiology and immunization 
  • To standardize rabies diagnostic techniques & reagents
  • Provision of virus strains and reference sera
  • To conduct batch release of rabies diagnostics 
  • To confirm rabies diagnosis upon request
  • Organization of national inter-laboratory proficiency tests

The FLI has been designated a WHO Collaborating Centre for Rabies Surveillance and Research and an WOAH Reference Laboratory for Rabies in 1975 and 1992, respectively. Terms of Reference (ToR) are defined with each re-designation period:

ToR as WHO Collaborating Centre for Rabies Surveillance and Research and WOAH Reference Laboratory for Rabies:

  • To conduct and coordinate research on rabies based upon recommendations of the WHO expert committees, scientific groups and other consultative meetings. Areas of research are oral vaccination of wildlife & dogs, epidemiological and laboratory diagnostics of rabies, and epidemiology of rabies in neozoa and European bats. 
  • To collect & analyze rabies surveillance data & to distribute the information to collaborating institutes. To further develop the European database for rabies (www.who-rabies-bulletin.org/) as an interdisciplinary platform and information source of rabies surveillance & research in Europe and as a template for other regions. 
  • To contribute to the Global Health Observatory of the WHO by providing expert knowledge and available rabies surveillance and related data or information 
  • To provide support & expertise for surveillance & control measures of rabies 
  • To provide training in the fields of epidemiology & laboratory diagnostics. 
  • To standardize techniques & reagents & distribute WHO reagents to other laboratories. 
  • To undertake consultative work for WHO & other laboratories upon request.  


  • Antigen detection by immunofluorescence test (IFT), direct rabies immunohistochemical test (DRIT) & immunochromatographic test (later flow device)
  • Virus detection in cell culture (RTCIT - virus isolation)
  • Lyssavirus genome detection by conventional and real-time RT-PCR assays
  • Genetic characterization of lyssavirus strains by next generation and classical sequencing
  • Biological characterization of lyssavirus strains in mouse model
  • Antibody detection by neutralization test, ELISA, Cell-ELISA and immunoblotting
  • Reference sera for serological assays
  • Numerous lyssavirus reference strains
  • Anti-nucleocapsid monoclonal antibodies for virus typing
  • Pathogenicity studies with novel lyssaviruses
  • Passive surveillance on the occurrence of lyssavirus infections
  • Characterization of lyssavirus isolates from Europe and elsewhere
  • Collection and analysis of rabies surveillance data from Europe
  • Immunogenicity and efficacy of novel oral rabies vaccines
  • Oral vaccination of wildlife and dogs
  • Technical advice for the control of dog-mediated rabies in Namibia
  • Kudu rabies
  • REGULATION (EU) 2016/429 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 9 March 2016 on transmissible animal diseases and amending and repealing certain acts in the area of animal health (‘Animal Health Law’)<o:p></o:p>
  • Rabies regulation (TW-VO) of 04 Oktober 2010 (BGBl. I S. 1313) amended by a Article 3 of the regulation of 29 Dezember 2014 (BGBl. I S. 2481)