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Brenda Cabrera By Brenda Cabrera • May 27, 2020

How can genome sequencing help see if you’re at risk of severe COVID-19?

Genetic sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus aims to inform policymakers about the spread of the virus in the community and also to answer if our individual genetic makeup makes us susceptible to a mild or severe case of COVID-19.

Researcher looking through a microscope in the lab.The process, involving the recording of the order of genetic pairs of DNA can also help with vaccine design. Several labs around the world have started to sequence the genome of COVID-19 patients. A recently-launched UK program aims to involve 35,000 patients to track mutations (changes in the genetic code) of the virus and find out if our genes can make our immune system go into a devastating overdrive. This reaction is called a “cytokine storm” referring to the proteins that trigger hyper inflammation that can threaten the life of the patient. Sequencing can also help us find genetic clues to why seemingly healthy and young people can fall sick with the disease. And, data about the gradual mutations of SARS-CoV-2 allows clinicians and policymakers to track how the virus travels geographically. If, for example, all patient virus samples have the same genetic code in a locked-down city, it can suggest that a spike in infections was due to a local person. If there is a variety in the samples, it can suggest that someone brought in the virus from the outside.

Has genome sequencing given us any answers yet? Yes. Since the first genetic sequence of the virus was published at the end of January, scientists have been re-sequencing samples from patients and comparing them to the first known version. They constructed a map that revealed how mutated SARS-CoV-2 strains spread around the world. By identifying the geographical source of individual mutations, experts were able to tell, from which region the virus came to their countries. Researchers also compared the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 with the sequences of other coronaviruses from animals like pangolins and bats and found they were pretty similar. This suggests that the virus jumped to humans from animals via mutations, refuting the claim by some politicians and celebrities that it was artificially made. A more beneficial application of the technique for the public would be the large-scale sequencing of the entire genome of people with mild and severe cases of Covid-19. Although the idea will raise some ethical and privacy-related questions, seeing which genes of the virus mutate most, will help researchers in their quest to design an effective vaccine.  

Here is the current state of science on a Sparrho pinboard.

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