Cracking the code: Saudi researchers fight virus with genetic sequencing

Cracking the code: Saudi researchers fight virus with genetic sequencing
A banner with an instruction on personnel hygiene is seen at the street, following the outbreak of coronavirus, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 16, 2020. The banner reads: "Wash hands with soap and water." (Reuters)
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Updated 23 March 2020

Cracking the code: Saudi researchers fight virus with genetic sequencing

Cracking the code: Saudi researchers fight virus with genetic sequencing
  • Many countries are working to find a vaccine, with some clinical trials already taking place

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia is joining the global battle against the coronavirus (COVID-19) through genetic sequencing in an effort to identify the source of the genetic strain and reduce the spread of the disease in the Kingdom.

In the space of a few weeks, scientists have learned a great deal about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2, but more information is needed.

With researchers scrambling to find a means of combatting the spread of the virus, many countries are working to find a vaccine, with some clinical trials already taking place.

The King Abdullah International Medical Research Center (KAIMRC) in Riyadh has recently announced that they have successfully completed the genetic sequence of COVID-19 from a number of patients. The Saudi Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) has also successfully done the same.

As part of the global fight against the virus, the Saudi CDC has announced that the next-generation sequencing technology has helped identify the origin of the virus and the epidemiological link between positive cases.

In an interview with Al-Ekhbariyah TV, Dr. Ahmed Albarrag, chief officer of the public health laboratory at the Saudi CDC, said that through genetic sequencing, the institute can monitor the rate of spread and track transmission inside the Kingdom — which will reduce the infection rate — and also follow up on any genetic mutation of the virus.

Dr. Hosam Zowawi, a clinical microbiologist at the King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences, told Arab News that the importance of the genetic sequencing map of COVID-19 lies in understanding how the it has infected the Saudi population and its relevance to the existing virus circulating worldwide.

The number of patients that have been tested so far has not been announced by the Ministry of Health, but several health and scientific research institutes across the Kingdom have conducted the same procedure, including the Saudi CDC and KAIMRC.

Zowawi explained that the investigation of microbial genomics is mainly conducted by looking at the overall picture of the genome. “In this context, the purpose is to see the link between our strains as well as the ones that have infected others overseas,” he told Arab News.

The data helped identify the strains of the virus.

“This is interesting because this way we are able to identify the source of the strain, we always rely on the clinical ‘story’ and the travel history of the virus by conducting these technological investigations,” Zowawi said, adding: “As we get the 100 percent affirmation by the genomics, we have now additional power that we never had before this DNA age.”

Dr Abdullah Algaissi, virologist and assistant professor at the college of medical sciences at Jazan University, said: “Coronaviruses are fragile and more prone for mutations.” He told Arab News that it is critical that more sequencing is conducted and shared.

“With more sequencing, we will understand more if there are emerging cases in the Kingdom“, said Algaissi. “For the cases announced by the Ministry of Health, we can collect the samples, identify the source and compare it to data inserted by different authorities from other countries.”

“You need both epidemiological investigations and genetic sequencing to identify the source and track contacts,” said Algaissi.

According to the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data database, there are currently over 39,000 coronaviruses sequence entries, with 1,121 COVID-19 entries.

Through this process, Algaissi told Arab News that they will be able to identify a means of controlling the disease, but finding a cure will take up to three years “if it (the virus) does not mutate,” he noted, adding: “But luckily the virus looks like it’s stable so far.”

One of the most important questions during outbreaks is to know how to break the chain of transmission. “By conducting whole genome sequencing (WGS) on the virus on a certain number of patients, we can identify the path of disease transmission within this group and provide information on the probable source,” said Zowawi.

Molecular tools such as WGS are being utilized and advanced at a fast rate to provide better methods for identifying, comparing and classifying pathogenic organisms. The practice is common in the study of pandemics and epidemics.

With the current number of confirmed cases globally reaching over 310,000, over 13,000 deaths and over 95,000 recoveries, the need for clinical trials is vital. The outbreak is gaining steam in many countries at a dangerous rate.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said last Wednesday that it would launch a multi-country clinical trial for potential coronavirus therapies. The “SOLIDARITY” trial, it said, was part of an aggressive effort to initiate the global research for anti-viral drugs to treat COVID-19.

“Multiple small trials with different methodologies may not give us the clear, strong evidence we need about which treatments help to save lives,” said WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom, adding: “WHO and its partners are therefore organizing a study in many countries in which some of these untested treatments are compared with each other. This large, international study is designed to generate the robust data we need, to show which treatments are the most effective. We have called this study the SOLIDARITY trial.”

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and many of its scientific institutes have since partnered with the WHO to provide it with the latest data in an effort to ensure that sources are documented and released.