B.C. to track origins and spread of new coronavirus with genomic technology

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  • VANCOUVER, British Columbia — With funding from Genome BC, the BC Centre for Disease Control’s (BCCDC) Public Health Laboratory will be able to identify where new cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in BC are coming from and monitor any spread in the community.

    While the risk of disease spread in British Columbia remains low at this time, the number of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide has climbed to over 70,000. With this in mind the BCCDC is adding a critical new dimension to its outbreak response capabilities by incorporating genomic analysis into tracking. This initiative is a $150,000 pilot study supported by Genome BC’s Strategic Initiatives Fund.

    For humans, we can represent where we come from as a family tree, based on prior knowledge of relationships or the sequence of our DNA — the building blocks of all living things. We can represent viruses the same way. For each new strain, in each new patient, the sequence (of DNA, or related RNA depending on the virus) allows us to place that strain in the larger family tree. If the new strain has a close relative we’ve seen already in BC, for example, it may be part of a locally-transmitted cluster; if the new strain is more closely related to virus strains recorded in another country, it might be a new introduction to BC. This information enables BCCDC to work with local public health authorities to guide and evaluate interventions. Since this kind of information informs real time decision making, it’s essential that this work take full advantage of new rapid, potentially mobile, sequencing technologies.

    This new work is well under way under the leadership of BCCDC Public Health Laboratory Medical Director Dr. Mel Krajden, one of the investigators from the first team in the world to produce the complete sequence of the SARS virus genome. The team is co-led by UBC faculty Dr. Richard Harrigan, a scientist with decades of experience performing translational HIV studies based on genomics, and Dr. Natalie Prystajecky, a microbiologist overseeing the COVID-19 test development at the BCCDC.

    “With SARS, it took the world six months to obtain one virus sequence and BC was first,” said Dr. Richard Harrigan. “With COVID-19, we are aiming to turn around sequences from each patient in under 24 hours.”

    “This type of project provides an example of the immediate impact Genome BC can have in an emerging public health scenario, like we are seeing for COVID-19, as well as promoting innovative genomic thinking to overcome scientific challenges. This work will improve our ability to respond to this emergency and ultimately benefits public health and the residents of BC,” said Dr. Natalie Prystajecky.

    “This experienced team is developing critical tools for response to this and any future outbreaks in BC,” said Pascal Spothelfer, President and CEO, Genome BC. “It is a clear demonstration of the power of genomic analysis, and we are proud to be in a position to move it forward quickly.”( jboon@genomebc.ca)

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