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The Key to Protecting the Public from COVID-19: Genetics

By: Sai Srihaas Potu

The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has affected millions of people worldwide, igniting an unprecedented effort from the scientific community to understand the biological makeup of the COVID-19 virus.

The recent emergence and rapid global spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and the resulting coronavirus disease (COVID-19) poses an unprecedented health crisis that was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020. The origin of SARS-CoV-2 was traced to the city of Wuhan in the province of Hubei, China, where a cluster of viral pneumonia cases was first detected, many in connection with the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. China reported this outbreak to the WHO on December 31, 2019, and soon after identified the causative pathogen as a beta coronavirus with high sequence homology to bat coronaviruses (CoVs) using angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor as the dominant mechanism of cell entry.

In light of recent research, scientists have been able to develop a new genetics test for COVID-19. The full genome sequencing test can not only provide accurate results in less than two minutes, but it can also extract intricate and highly complex genetic data about the strain of the coronavirus infection. Scientists from The University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Science are part of a global team that is developing a new DNA test for COVID-19, which can provide faster and more detailed results than other tests.

This test can be used to understand how COVID-19 is mutating, aid vaccine development, and understand its journey across populations globally—for instance, how it adapts to a new host. It is currently being used for COVID-19 research, but once approved by the US Food and Drug administration it can be used for both the diagnostic testing of patients and to enable a better understanding of the virus.

Dr. Parwinder Kaur, from UWA’s School of Agriculture and Environment, who is the Australian project lead, said the new test would enable one person to process hundreds of samples a day, at a cost comparable to current tests. Dr. Kaur said that the test would be able to detect low viral concentrations and it could also be used to monitor COVID-19 through wastewater treatment plants to track its spread through communities.

The rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 and the unprecedented nature of COVID-19 has demanded urgency in both basic science and clinical research, and the scientific community has met that call with remarkable productivity. Within months, there has been a significant generation of scientific knowledge that has shed some light on the immunology of SARS-CoV-2 infections. Studies of past coronavirus outbreaks involving SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV have provided scientists a foundation for their understanding. The pathology of severe cases of COVID-19 does indeed resemble certain immunopathologies seen in SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV infections, like CRS.

However, in many other ways, immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 are distinct from those seen with other coronavirus infections. The emerging epidemiological observation that significant proportions of individuals are asymptomatic despite severe infections not only reflects our current understanding that SARS-CoV-2 has a longer incubation period and a higher rate of transmission than other coronaviruses but also speaks to significant differences in the host immune response. Therefore, immune responses against SARS-CoV-2 and mechanisms of hyperinflammation-driven pathology must be further elucidated to better define therapeutic strategies for COVID-19.

Subsequently, scientists are working on a possible vaccine for COVID-19. Vaccines in development around the world are in various stages of testing. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he's confident one of the vaccine candidates will be proven safe and effective by the first quarter of 2021. But it's not clear which candidate shows the greatest promise yet. In the meantime, the US government is helping companies such as Moderna ramp up the development of their candidate vaccines so that if they're proven to work safely, they can be rolled out quickly.

Besides a vaccine, researchers are looking into the use of chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine, and favipiravir to stop the virus from entering host cells which will keep it from replicating its genomes. Another possible solution is the use of antibodies from the people who have recovered from the virus. This will allow for short-term immunity from the virus until a long-term solution can be created. Though this methodology has worked for previous pandemics, it is still unclear how effective it will be against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. With the creation of this new genetic test, researchers and doctors will be able to analyze and understand the specific mechanics of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Thus, investigating the specific pathological mechanisms of the virus will be vital in developing effective treatments for the coronavirus and other SARS related pandemics in the future.


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