Virginia scientists using genetic technology to get handle on COVID-19 in state

Going inside the state lab

RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Governor Ralph Northam announced on Monday that the state public health laboratory is one of the first in the nation to use genetic technology to combat COVID-19.

The Department of General Services’ (DGS) Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) is one of the first labs to use genetic technology to help health officials better understand and track the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, which will help prevention and response efforts.

DCLS is using next-generation sequencing to genetically decode some Virginia samples that contain the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. This can help track how the virus is changing and provide insights on how it is being transmitted.

“By looking specifically at the genetics of the virus we can actually compare between patients to see if they are more likely to have a virus that came from a common source,” said Dr. Lauren Turner, DCLS Lead Scientist.

As the virus spreads person-to-person, it makes copies of itself and sometimes makes small mutations, this can help scientists track how cases are related.

“This genetic fingerprint gives us tremendous insight into this novel virus, helping us understand where Virginia cases originated and how they are being transmitted in our communities,” said DCLS Director Dr. Denise Toney. “Providing this information in real-time is unbelievably valuable for public health officials as they determine how to reduce the impact of COVID-19 in our communities.”

In Virginia, the sequences so far show that the virus had multiple introductions into Virginia and not just one source. There is also clear person-to-person spread suspected within the COVID-19 outbreaks.

The computer data tells scientists the origin of coronavirus in Virginia. The state’s two outbreaks are due to travel from Asia and Europe.

“Adding the biological context helps us to refine those calculations and understand what is the extent of this outbreak currently and how is it being impacted by the social distancing, quarantine efforts happening nationwide and globally as well,” said Kevin Libuit, Bioinformatics Lead Scientist.

Scientists are now using a Minion sequencer, a new tool being used in the fight. The device can pull data in less than 18 hours, while the older versions take up between 24 and 40 hours.

“This is the first time that I’ve worked on a pandemic. And it’s really. It has heightened the importance of what we do I think and kind of spurred us into action a little faster,” said Logan Fink, Bioinformatics Lead Scientist.

The data is uploaded and shared across the globe, but state health leaders are also using it here at home to track outbreaks at senior-care facilities.

"This information allows us to actually track the virus as it's spreading in Virginia," said Dr. Turner.

The work will continue as the virus spreads in Virginia. Here, it’s also being used to help figure out when things might be able to get back to normal.

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