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Sci-Friday: Alaska scientists search for new mutated strain of SARS-CoV-2

Published: Jan. 15, 2021 at 4:54 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - For this week’s Sci-Friday, we return to the world of genome sequencing where Alaska scientists are on the hunt for a new, more contagious strain of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Genome sequencing is a process through which experts are able to analyze strains of SARS-CoV-2, and detect mutations as it passes from person to person. At the Alaska State Public Health Labs, Lab Chief Jayme Parker and Public Health Microbiologist Lisa Smith are analyzing genome sequences in search of a new mutated strain of virus.

“It takes us almost a week to get through 96 sequences just due to the time it takes for the machine. So right now we are definitely trying to prioritize those specimens that look like they might be consistent with what we know about the new variant that is coming out of the United Kingdom, the B.1.1.7,” said Smith.

This new strain has a mutation in part of its chemical makeup called a spike protein, which according to Parker makes it better adapted to the human receptor that it binds to in order to get into human cells and begin infection

“It doesn’t look like it causes more severe illness, or more mild illness. The part we’re concerned about is on the spike protein because we’ve designed that vaccine around the spike, and we just want to make sure that we’ve got the coverage across the planet on our current vaccine strategy,” said Parker, adding “That being said, there’s no indication that the vaccine is less effective at targeting this one. Probably the greatest concern with this particular variant isn’t that it causes more severe disease or that it’s going to escape the vaccine, but more that it’s going to drive surges in cases for an already strained hospital system.”

The Alaska State Public Health Labs are searching for this new strain by asking providers to share samples from patients who test positive after recently traveling.

“We have not seen any evidence of it yet in Alaska which is a good thing. Now that’s probably going to change just because you see this lineage taking off all over the country right now, all over the world, and it’s most definitely circulating in the United States more than we’re able to pick up because of our low sequencing coverage at this point. Face covering, social distancing... those mitigating strategies are very important right now. If that variant does make its way to Alaska, we need to make sure we’re trying to stop transmission as much as possible,” said Smith.

For more information on the mutation of COVID-19, Jayme Smith recommends visiting the gene sequencing database gisaid.org

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