NEW YORK (Reuters) – Scientists from the New York City health department have begun analyzing new coronavirus genetic material to allow them to trace the origins of future outbreaks in the coming months, while cautiously seeking to reopen the large, closed city.
Their work joins similar efforts at dozens of institutions around the world, which sequence the genomes of virus samples and group their findings in a global online database, allowing researchers to observe subtle differences between samples to track the spread of the virus. outbreak.
Oxiris Barbot, the city's health commissioner, told Reuters on a tour this week at the Manhattan Public Health Laboratory that genome sequencing could help mitigate any second wave of infections later in the year.
"We can use this fingerprint information to understand whether these additional infections are caused by infections that were still here in the city or if they were imported from elsewhere," she said in an interview, wearing a cloth mask with floral motifs. the nose and the mouth.
On the ninth floor of the laboratory, scientists in blue protective gear and face shields are working on sequencing in cramped rooms, whose doors are filled with danger warnings and safety precaution rules.
Colleagues on other floors perform diagnostic tests for COVID-19, the potentially lethal respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, on samples sent from city hospitals without their own testing facilities.
The showers are embedded in the ceilings of the building's monotonous corridors and can be activated by pulling a rope if a worker fears he has been contaminated by whatever he is studying.
The new coronavirus genome consists of a single short chain of ribonucleic acid, or RNA, a distinct sequence of genetic-based molecules, sometimes described by letters, which the virus uses to hijack its host's cellular machinery and make copies of itself same.
Only four different types of letters make up an RNA sequence, referred to by geneticists as c, u, a and g. The new coronavirus genome is about 30,000 letters, tiny compared to the 3 billion letters that make up the DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, of the human genome.
As the virus replicates within its host, it can make minor transcription errors, altering its genetic signature. These mutations, which can be transmitted in subsequent infections, can be detected in samples collected from patients to create a kind of genetic family tree.
Across First Avenue, from the Public Health Laboratory, scientists at the Grossman School of Medicine at New York University who sequenced samples of the virus deduced that the dominant virus variant in New York City – the heart of one of the deadliest outbreaks in the world – arrived in Europe.
"It's like doing detective work," said Adriana Heguy, one of the researchers at New York University, in an interview.
Slideshow (9 Images)
She has been sharing her results with colleagues around the world through the GISAID database, based in Germany, created to track the ebb and flow of influenza viruses. "You can find your transmission chain by doing this," she said.
Health officials can use this knowledge to determine which measures are more effective than others and where their points of vulnerability are.
Although most mutations are trivial and do not affect the behavior of the virus, Heguy and other researchers are also working to collect enough samples to see if there are clinical differences seen in different variants of the virus, and their work may help to design a vaccine that offers the widest possible protection.
Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Hussein Waaile, edited by Ross Colvin and Jonathan Oatis
Our standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust principles.