How Genetic Sequencing Is Being Used to Monitor Worcester for COVID Variants

If variants are identified, there can be targeted, accelerated contact tracing to try to contain the spread faster

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Coronavirus variants are becoming a growing concern for the Unites States as we watch just how quickly they’re spreading in other countries.

“We see it on the news all the time that there’s one from South Africa, there’s another one from the U.K.,” said Ahmet Atamer of Shrewsbury.

“I’m more concerned that it could be more lethal, like the South African one that we’re worried about,” added Toral Parikh, also of Shrewsbury.

So researchers here in Massachusetts are trying to get ahead of those variants by using what’s called genetic sequencing -- “sequence the genetic code of viruses that are causing infections, COVID infections in the Worcester area, and then use that information to track the evolution and spread of the virus through the community,” said Dr. Bronwyn MacInnis, the director of pathogen genomic surveillance at the Broad Institute.

Through an existing partnership with UMass Memorial Medical School, the institute is using material they already have from COVID tests to do the genetic sequencing, MacInnis said.

“By and large, it’s leftover material that was used initially to do the diagnostic of an individual,” she said, “but then we’re looking at it at the kind of population level without any individual information.”

MacInnis sid the Broad Institute processes that material to see if it contains any of the concerning variants.

“We take that kind of excess diagnostic material and look at the genetic code of the viruses that are in those samples,” MacInnis said.

If they identify variants, there can be targeted, accelerated contact tracing to try to contain the spread faster, she said, adding, “We hope that this will protect the people of Worcester and more broadly the state from the threat of these variants in our communities.”

While Worcester is one of the focal areas for this research because of their partnership with UMass Medical School, she said it is going on across the state and expanding as resources allow.

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