Health Watch: Gene sequencing work receives funding to track COVID variants

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Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 4:49 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -A team of University of Alaska biomedical researchers will join a federally funded effort to improve the tracking of COVID-19 variants throughout the state, as The National Institutes of Health provides a $770,000 grant to support the effort.

Dr. Devin Drown, Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks explained, “This is a COVID sequencing project, and so the idea here is to sequence as many positive COVID cases, and sequence the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the hopes of generating information about variants. COVID variants are of keen interest right now. We’re trying to understand how they can be more transmissible, more virulent, causing increases in cases across the country, across Alaska.”

This collaborative effort is supported by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Alaska Anchorage, the Alaska State Virology Lab, the Southcentral Foundation and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Sequencing variants of concern is especially important as they make up the bulk of new cases in Alaska. Eric Bortz, Associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Alaska Anchorage said, “Recently, really starting in June and in the month of July, we’ve seen cases come right back up - and right now the trajectory is going up, and it’s driven by new variants. The new variants include what we call the Delta variant that was first identified in India, and actually it has mutations in the virus that make it more transmissible and it causes disease faster. So Delta right now is really dominating the genetic landscape of the virus in Alaska.”

The Delta variant can be contracted by people who have received COVID-19 vaccinations, albeit with reduced symptoms and severity. Dr. Bortz emphasized that the emergence and spread of these viral variations showcases the continued importance of using preventative safety measures to stall the spread of infection and prevent further mutation. “The pandemic is not over, and it is going into kind of a really scary phase. You know we almost thought we were out of it, but we don’t have a high enough vaccination rate in the United States and in Alaska right now to prevent this current surge, we have to really really ramp up on that.”

Vaccinations are key - but for the unvaccinated, Dr. Bortz says the measures of masking and social distancing are still paramount in keeping our community safe and preventing the further development of COVID mutations. “We’re really in danger without having complete vaccination in the population in Alaska and in the United States, of this current wave trickling on into the school year, and into September, November, December, where we had a massive seasonal winter wave last year. We potentially could see that again, driven by variants, especially for people who are unvaccinated. So it is a little bit frightening, and we will be looking at that very carefully using our genome sequencing technology.”

For more information, The Alaska Genome sequencing weekly report can be found here.

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