The Role of Next Generation Sequencing in the Medical Community’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

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The world is still coping with the chaos and disruptions prompted by the novel coronavirus that has been implicated in staggering numbers of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, with everyone in the healthcare community needing to play a role in dealing with this dreaded disease. 

What’s of particular interest here is the fact that the medical community has been turning to next generation sequencing in response to the pandemic.

Next Generation Sequencing Supports the Global COVID-19 Pandemic Response

After the initial reports of infections of COVID-19 in patients, scientists tracking the spread of the disease began to detect mutations of the novel coronavirus, referring to various new variants. Since the initial vaccines to combat COVID-19 infections were based on the first version of this coronavirus strain, it became increasingly important to use new tools to understand the precise nature of these mutations.

This is where next generation sequencing came to play an important role in our efforts to defeat the disease.

Nature reports that bioinformatics and genomics are becoming crucial tools for public health workers. With SARS-CoV-2 (“severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”), we have a pathogen that is very contagious, with people becoming sick after spending time in unventilated spaces with individuals who already are infected.

Public health workers need as much information as they can get about the state of the coronavirus and its mutations, so they can devise an effective strategy to combat further infections. Wearing masks and getting vaccinated is essential, especially when social distancing is difficult or impossible. The need for vaccines includes getting new booster shots for those who are particularly vulnerable to getting sick, such as people who are elderly or who have underlying medical conditions.

Fast Sequencing to Help With Diagnosis and Tracking the Spread of Disease

Nature explains that scientists began using genomic and bioinformatics tools, including next generation sequencing. Consider that as of January 30, 2020, upon the World Health Organization’s issuing a Public Health Emergency  of International Concern, scientists had already identified 330 different variations of COVID-19 genomes.

Approximately 1,300 genomes were being submitted every day to GenBank’s database for scientists to consult and track the progress of COVID-19. This data is shared all across the globe. Cooperation is required, since countries do not have equal budgets for NGS technology or the personnel to operate equipment used in next-generation sequencing systems.

With Internet connections helping scientists share information, those with more advanced labs could provide data to nations with fewer technical and medical resources. “SARS-CoV-2 sequencing data collected all over the world and rapidly shared in online databases ultimately aided public health officials and governments in making better-informed decisions,” according to Nature.

Sharing Data From Sequenced COVID-19 Samples

Scientists who share data from COVID-19 next generation sequencing efforts have a concern that others will respect the rights they have to this data, including the facts about who authored the information. 

But that is a minor issue when taken in the context of the need to rapidly disseminate new information about coronavirus mutations and variants. The information scientists obtain from each NGS scan of the virus helps public health officials plan ahead, such as reinstituting mask-wearing in public or shutting down cities when new strains that spread like wildfire are detected.

Now, with more genomes of the virus being scanned, public health officials can actually track the spread of COVID-19 infections in real-time in any given community. Such data can quickly be put to use by officials to mitigate further spread of this airborne disease.

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