Next Generation Sequencing to Identify Variants in the Novel Coronavirus Causing COVID-19 Infections


One unfortunate aspect of the novel coronavirus pandemic that’s been causing people to be infected with COVID-19 is that as the virus moves through populations, it is tending to mutate. The variants of coronavirus can make it easier for it to transmit between people. Public health researchers are also concerned about potential changes in lethality between new variations.

As people catch COVID-19 and incubate the virus in their bodies, there are more opportunities for it to mutate. The problem is expected to continue until sufficient numbers of people become vaccinated and stop spreading the virus and its mutated versions.

Despite social distancing measures, lockdowns and entire shutdowns of economies, not enough people have been able to get vaccinated or wear masks to slow down the rate of transmission. And since mutated versions of the virus can’t be contained because infected people can fly across the world, there is no border protection against the deadly virus.

With that in mind, it’s worth considering that one of the more powerful tools in the world’s fight against coronavirus is next generation sequencing.

The Role of Next Generation Sequencing in COVID Variant Detection

A major variant that recently emerged has been causing worry among COVID-19 researchers. As noted by SelectScience, the World Health Organization labeled the Omicron mutation of the novel coronavirus as being a “variant of concern.”

Scientists first detected this new version of the virus in November 2021 in South Africa. A common response is for nations to close their borders to people from countries where a new variant is discovered. But it can be tricky to keep the virus in check once it starts spreading asymptomatically in populations.

In other words, if people catch the variant, some of them may not show any symptoms while incubating the virus, and then they can pass it along to people without anyone knowing. That’s especially problematic in communities where tests are hard or impossible to come by. Without rigorous testing, we have fewer defenses against coronavirus, since we don’t know where it is or what variant we are encountering.

The new Omicron variant has approximately 50 variations, with much of the changes taking place in the spike protein, an instrumental component in the virus being able to transmit easily. The spike protein is also how our antibodies recognize the virus to fight it off.

In an interview with principals at MAKO Medical Laboratories, SelectScience asked chief operating officer Josh Arant about how the company is working to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Arant explained that “in early 2021, we brought on a variant sequencing assay utilizing our next-generation sequencing platform… We’ve been active in the COVID-19 pandemic from a laboratory’s perspective, performing PCR testing, variant sequencing, antigen testing, and antibody testing.”

There is a distinct need for next-generation sequencing as scientists seek to keep track of coronavirus variants and how they are spreading in the population.

Arant noted that the task ahead of them is to identify the genome sequence of the coronavirus so they can detect when new variants emerge.

Their novel approach uses semiconductor sequencing. It uses a little chip that detects nucleotides rapidly. It takes about two and a half hours to sequence a variant.

Benefits of Next Generation Sequencing Include Faster Detection of Coronavirus Variants

Faster sequencing means that public health officials will be able to get a handle on what variants happen to be in the local community as they track the progression of disease there. It can make a difference in getting people to adjust their behavior if a particularly transmissible variant occurs, public safety officials can fine-tune their response (from restoring mask mandates or mounting a campaign to further encourage vaccinations.

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