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B.C. to track the origin and spread of COVID-19 with 'genomic technology'

Supported by Genome BC’s Strategic Initiatives Fund, the $150,000 pilot study will be able to identify where new cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in B.C. are coming from and monitor any spread in the community.
Photo: BCCDC

The BC Centre for Disease Control’s (BCCDC) Public Health Laboratory has announced a new pilot project that will enable researchers to identify and track new cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in British Columbia.

On Feb. 20, Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry reported that a sixth case of the novel coronavirus had been diagnosed in B.C. after a woman in her 30s returned to the province this week from travel in Iran. However, she added that the woman's presumptive case is relatively mild and a number of her close contacts have already been put in isolation.

So, 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 a staggering 70,000. As such, the BCCDC has responded by adding, "a critical new dimension to its outbreak response capabilities by incorporating genomic analysis into tracking."

Supported by Genome BC’s Strategic Initiatives Fund, the $150,000 pilot study will be able to identify where new cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in B.C. are coming from and monitor any spread in the community.

Found mostly in animals, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. In humans, they can cause diseases ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV). 

The new coronavirus has been named SARS-CoV-2, and the disease that it causes is called COVID-19. The symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to other respiratory illnesses, including the flu and common cold. They include cough, sneezing, fever, sore throat and difficulty breathing.

The BCCDC notes that people can trace their history as a family tree, based on prior knowledge of relationships or the sequence of our DNA — the building blocks of all living things. Similarly, the health authority can place each new strain of a virus on a larger family tree. 

"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," it states. 

The new project, "Responding to Emerging Serious Pathogen Outbreaks using Next-gen Data: RESPOND," is designed as a rapid response pilot that will use the fast Oxford Nanopore and other sequencing platforms to simultaneously produce sequence and family tree information. 

Leading the team for the pilot project is 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 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."

Prystagjecky adds that it is important for anyone with further questions about the virus to consult the BCCDC Coronavirus (Novel) page. This source gives accurate and up-to-date information about what the virus is, how it is contracted, and what to do to keep yourself safe.