PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Where biology meets technology, researchers are on the hunt for mutations of COVID-19.
The Microbial Genome Sequencing Center, also known as MiGS, is one of several in the country sequencing the coronavirus.
“We're just running a couple of DNA samples on there,” MiGS director Dan Snyder said, as he pointed to one of the computers. “Every single virus that we sequence is different somehow.”
Researchers at the lab, located in downtown Pittsburgh, are looking for any changes to the virus and patterns that could indicate there is a new strain of COVID-19.
“That may have an effect on how things like vaccines or transmissions are effective against what we're working on here,” Snyder said. “One of the biggest concerns that I have is that we're really not, as a country, doing a very good job of kind of monitoring what is circulating in our population.”
The U.S. lags far behind other developed countries in tracking changes to the virus, ranking 36th in the world. Up until recently, out of the nearly 29 million positive coronavirus tests in the country, the U.S. sequenced less than half a percent (0.36 percent).
Compare that to the U.K., which has done about 10 percent of their cases.
“It was that effort that the U.K. invested in--in terms of broad-scale genome sequencing--that allowed them to capture these novel variants that we're now paying attention to,” said Vaughn Cooper, chief scientific officer at MiGS.
That’s important because the coronavirus strain, now known as the U.K. variant, turned out to be nearly 50 percent more transmissible.
“When you see not just variation, but particular changes that are accumulating and becoming more and more common, that's an indicator that that lineage, that variant, has an advantage,” Cooper said.
Because the U.S. leads the world in the number of COVID cases, but there’s not as much sequencing happening here as elsewhere in the world, experts say it is likely there are variants of the virus making their way through the country that we don’t even know about yet.
New strains were recently detected in California and New York. Researchers at MiGS also found a new COVID variant just in the past two weeks. It's information they shared with other researchers.
“These are all kind of, maybe, just the tip of the iceberg,” Cooper said. “We're hoping that the iceberg isn't as big as we fear, but there will probably be more variants detected.”
It’s a virus that continues to evolve, as the world struggles to get it under control.
As part of the new COVID-19 relief package currently making its way through Congress, there is a proposal for nearly $2 billion to pay for more sequencing and tracking of the virus.