Human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infects the lower respiratory tract of humans, causing the cells to merge, forming syncytia (hence the virus name). RSV belongs to the family Paramyxoviridae (which includes viruses such as measles and mumps), genus Pneumovirus. It's single stranded RNA genome is contained in a capsid and envelope. RSV is closely related to bovine RSV.

Associated diseases:

RSV causes infections mainly during infancy and childhood, although infections can occur in the elderly and adults that have weakend immune systems.

Clinical Signs:

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing  
  • Irritability
  • Decreased activity
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Bronchitis
  • In severe cases death

Disease transmission:

The disease is spread by direct contact with infected secretions and transmission through objects (fomites).

Disease prevalence:

RSV is globally spread and by the age of two all humans are estimated to have been infected. Most cases will present as cold like, but 1-2% will progress to bronchiolitis or pneumonia, requiring hospitalisation. Repeated infections can occur in immunocompromised adults and in the elderly. Annual epidemics occur during the winter months in temperate climates and during the rainy season in tropical climates.

Impact for Society – what are we doing?

RSV causes 200,000 deaths worldwide per year in children under the age of five and there is currently no vaccine. However, work done at the Institute has shown a new type of vectored vaccine provides immunity against bovine respiratory syncytial virus, a closely related virus in calves, giving strong evidence that a similar type of vaccine could work in humans.

Find out more about RSV at Public Health England.


* Image by Dr. Craig Lyerla courtesy of Public Health Image Library (PHIL)

Research papers

Thakur N, Conceicao C, Isaacs A, Human S, Modhiran N, McLean R K, Pedrera M, Tan T K, Rijal P, Townsend A, Taylor G, Young P R, Watterson D, Chappell K J, Graham S P, Bailey D (2020)

Journal of General Virology early view
Jobe F, Simpson J, Hawes P, Guzman E, Bailey D (2020)

Journal of Virology early view
Riffault S, Hagglund S, Guzman E, Naslund K, Jouneau L, Dubuquoy C, Pietralunga V, Laubreton D, Boulesteix O, Gauthier D, Remot A, Boukaridi A, Falk A, Shevchenko G, Lind S B, Vargmar K, Zhang B, Kwong P D, Rodriguez M J, Duran M G, Schwartz-Cornil I, Eleouet J F, Taylor G, Valarcher J F (2020)

Vaccines 8 (2) , 231
Ren J, Nettleship J E, Harris G, Mwangi W, Rhaman N, Grant C, Kotecha A, Fry E, Charleston B, Stuart D I, Hammond J, Owens R J (2019)

Molecular Immunology 112 , 123-130
Leemans A, Boeren M, Van der Gucht W, Pintelon I, Roose K, Schepens B, Saelens X, Bailey D, Martinet W, Caljon G, Maes L, Cos P, Delputte P (2018)

Viruses 10 (8) , 426
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