The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic was reported to have impacted RSV epidemiology and could have important implications for RSV prevention and control strategies. We aimed to understand the RSV-associated acute lower respiratory infection (ALRI) hospitalisation burden in children younger than five years during the COVID-19 pandemic period and the possible changes in RSV epidemiology from a global perspective.

We conducted a systematic literature search for studies published between January 1, 2020 and June 30, 2022, from MEDLINE (Ovid), Embase (Ovid), Global Health (Ovid), Web of Science, WHO COVID-19 database, CINAHL, LILACS, OpenGrey, CNKI, WanFang and ChongqingVIP. We included unpublished RSV epidemiology data shared by international collaborators. Eligible studies reported data for RSV-associated ALRI hospital admission rates or at least one of the following severity measures: the proportion of RSV cases that needed supplemental oxygen, mechanical ventilation or intensive care unit admission, and in-hospital case fatality ratio. A generalised linear mixed-effects model was used for data synthesis to understand the changes in the incidence, age distribution and severity of RSV-associated ALRI hospitalisations in children under five years during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to the year 2019.

We included 61 studies, 14 studies from published literature and 47 unpublished datasets. Most studies (51/61) were from the high-income region, followed by the upper-middle-income region (9/61); only one study was from the lower-middle-income region, and no studies were from the low-income region. Compared to 2019, all income regions saw substantial decreases in RSV-associated ALRI hospitalisation rate across all age groups in 2020; the number of RSV-associated ALRI hospitalisations in children aged 0–<60 months decreased by approximately 80% (325,000 to 66,000), 14% (581,000 to 501,000) and 42% (1,378,000 to 795,000) for high-income, upper-middle-income and lower-middle-income countries, respectively. RSV hospitalisation rate started to rise in 2021, and by March 2022, the annualised rate returned to a level comparable to 2019 (6·0/1000, 95% uncertainty interval [UI] 5·4–6·8 by March 2022 vs 5·0/1000, 3·6–6·8 in 2019) in high-income countries while remaining lower in middle-income countries. Across all time periods and income regions, RSV-associated ALRI hospitalisation rates peaked in infants aged 0–<3 months and declined with increasing age. Compared to the pre-pandemic period, there was a significantly increased proportion of RSV-associated ALRI hospitalisations in those aged 12–<24 months in high-income and upper-middle-income regions (ORs ranged from 1·30 [1·07–1·59] to 2·05 [1·66–2·54]). No consistent changes in disease severity were observed.

Our study documented a significant reduction in RSV-associated ALRI hospitalisation burden in children under five years during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. A rebound to pre-pandemic levels in RSV-associated ALRI hospitalisation rate was observed in the high-income region by March 2022 but not in the middle-income region, suggesting a more persistent negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health-care systems and health-care access in middle-income regions. RSV surveillance needs to be established (or re-established) to monitor the changes in RSV epidemiology, particularly in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

Funding EU Innovative Medicines Initiative Preparing for RSV Immunisation and Surveillance in Europe (PROMISE); Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; World Health Organization.

Cite as

Nair, H., Cong, B., MPharm, U., Bandeira, T., Bassat, Q., Bont, L., Chakhunashvili, G., Cohen, C., Desnoyers, C., Hammitt, L., Heikkinen, T., Huang, Q., Markić, J., Mira-Iglesias, A., Moyes, J., Nokes, J., Ploin, D., Seo, E., Singleton, R., Wolter, N., Fu Yung, C., Zar, H., Feikin, D., Sparrow, E. & Li, Y. 2023, 'Changes in the global hospitalisation burden of respiratory syncytial virus in young children during the COVID-19 pandemic: a systematic analysis', The Lancet Infectious Diseases. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1473-3099(23)00630-8

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Last updated: 24 January 2024
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