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UR Medicine prepares to ramp up coronavirus sequencing in an effort to track variants

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

UR Medicine will begin genomic sequencing of local coronavirus samples within weeks, allowing local researchers and doctors to see a fuller picture of what kind of virus is infecting people in the community.Genomic sequencing has allowed scientists to track the spread of coronavirus variants around the world.

“This will allow us to track the mutation rates and where these mutations are occurring,” said Dr. Edward Walsh, head of infectious diseases at Rochester General Hospital and professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “As we build up immunity in the community, the virus mutations may try to avoid the antibodies that we have built up. So it’s going to be critically important to track exactly where these mutations occur.”

Genomic sequencing is a scientific process that tells scientists what kind of genetic information is carried in DNA segments. Researchers describe it as a way to determine which version of the virus that causes COVID-19 is affecting a given community.

In mid-December, UR Medicine began sending 30 samples of positive coronavirus tests per day to the Wadsworth Center in Albany. The center is a New York state-run laboratory that can conduct genomic sequencing.

Dr. Dwight Hardy, director of clinical microbiology for UR Medicine labs, said there has been no indication from Albany that variants have become prominent in the Rochester area. He characterized this as good news, but said it’s inevitable that variants will become more widespread eventually.

Rochester Regional Health reported on Tuesday that five samples sent to Walter Reed were identified as containing parts of the Brazil and South Africa variants.

While no date has been set for the launch of local genomic sequencing, Hardy said it could start by the end of March.

Dr. Angela Branche, co-director of the Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said the coronavirus mutates randomly.

“The mutations that matter are the ones that make the virus more effective in terms of transmitting from one person to another, or evade the immune response,” Branche said.

Scientists in the U.K. credit genomic sequencing with helping them identify a new, more transmissible coronavirus strain. South Africa’s new SARS-CoV-2 variant was found the same way. Countries around the world have increased genomic sequencing in recent months, although the efforts have been inconsistent. UR Medicine plans to continue to send 30 samples daily to Albany, while also sequencing an undetermined number of samples in their own labs.

“It’s a difficult task, and it’s expensive, and it takes a lot of manpower to produce these results,” Walsh said. The sequencing, he explained, will allow researchers to target any tweaks in the original COVID-19 vaccines to better address the variants. Such tweaks could be performed within a matter of weeks if variants begin to prove resistant to vaccines or natural immunity.

“(Genomic sequencing) is helping us track the virus so we can be prepared for whatever happens,” Branche said. “It’s good scientific information to help us stay on top of this.”

Evan Dawson is the host of "Connections with Evan Dawson." He joined WXXI in January 2014 after working at 13WHAM-TV, where he served as morning news anchor. He was hired as a reporter for 13WHAM-TV in 2003 before being promoted to anchor in 2007.