University of Alaska Fairbanks Dr. Devin Drown explains COVID-19 genome sequencing project

Published: Nov. 4, 2020 at 4:58 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -As the pandemic continues on, scientists across the world are furthering their work on fully understanding COVID-19, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) is involved in cutting edge research on the virus. Dr. Devin Drown, Assistant professor of biology at the institute of arctic biology and the department of biology and wildlife, is working with UAF and several UAA (Anchorage) faculty in an ongoing collaborative study to uncover how the coronavirus was first and successively introduced to Alaska and how it has spread.

An important step in understanding and slowing the spread of COVID-19 is contact tracing, the process of identifying and isolating subjects exposed to the virus, in order to prevent further spread and trace potential transmission vectors the exposed subject may have had contact with.

“I’m part of a collaborative project working on COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 genome sequencing, and our objective here is to help with epidemic contact tracing by sequencing the genome of this virus we’re all dealing with," said Drown.

This collaborative effort involves many parties, including UAA and the State Virology Lab.

The team that I’m working with... I wanna give credit to my collaborators here. There’s Jack Chen at the state virology lab... and Eric Bortz, Brandon Briggs, Jason Burkhead, are all faculty down at the University of Alaska Anchorage. I’m one part of that entire team. We’re using several sequencing technologies to look at the variation that exists in the SARS-CoV-2 genome, and use that genetic variation, which is almost like a fingerprint, to allow us to connect different cases to one and other and hopefully understand the spread and origin of our COVID cases here in Alaska," said Drown.

Before any analysis can be made, the researchers are first sent samples of the virus from patients coming into Alaska, as well as residents.

“All we have are tubes of RNA because it’s an RNA virus, so these are nucleic acids. It’s just a simple ID number, so no personally identifiable information is ever released. We use a chemical process to translate the RNA into DNA. We’re just making kind of mirror image copies of it in the lab. It that takes a few hours. It’s a process that’s used in kind of the gold standard SARS or COVID testing,” said Drown.

By monitoring the small mutations that occur as the virus is passed from person to person, it can be determined where it came from in the lower 48 or internationally, and what “clusters” are spreading in Alaska.

“So far we have 153 genomes that we’ve sequenced, and publicly released -- but across the globe, scientists like here in Alaska have sequenced and released over a hundred thousand genomes. This is a tremendous global effort," said Drown.

Building a roadmap for potential avenues of transmission is an important step toward disambiguating the origin and spread of further COVID cases.

This story will continue as a three part series Thursday, and Dr. Drown will provide an in depth breakdown of the methods and sequencing technology used in this cutting edge research.

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