DUBAI: The blueprint for all living things, from plants and animals to microscopic viruses, is coded into their DNA and RNA — molecular structures that communicate the genetic information that determines the characteristics of all cellular organisms.
Genomic sequencing studies that untangle these structures are helping scientists to understand the origins of the novel coronavirus, also known as SARS-CoV-2, as well as identify its potentially more contagious variants.
Without this field of research, COVID-19 testing and the current rollout of vaccines would not have been possible. In fact, the pandemic has forced a radical advancement of our scientific understanding of the coronavirus, leading to revolutionary new mRNA vaccines created by Pfizer and Moderna.
Knowledge of the virus’s RNA sequence was a key factor in COVID-19’s early detection, which has enabled the rapid development of diagnostic techniques. Never before have the nearly 30,000 nucleotides of a virus been so closely examined.
Genomic surveillance studies are taking place in laboratories around the world. In South Africa, it was a genomic sequencing study that uncovered the B.1.351 variant (also known as 501Y.V2), which the scientific community fears is particularly contagious.
In the race to understand the source of the coronavirus, G42 Healthcare, an Abu Dhabi-based artificial intelligence and cloud computing company, launched its own SARS-CoV2 genome sequencing study last year.
The entire study will soon be published as a scientific paper, which is now in its final stages of production.
The company has also recently announced its collaboration with China’s Sinopharm CNBG to develop Hayat-Vax — “Hayat” meaning “life” in Arabic — with the potential to make the UAE the first Arab country to develop its own COVID-19 vaccine.
As rich nations squabble over a limited supply of vaccines, Hayat-Vax is seen by some as a promising new option for the developing world — that is, if Phase III clinical trials are opened to peer review and the public is convinced it can be trusted.
On April 21, Abu Dhabi approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Sinopharm had been the only available shot in the UAE capital for the general public since December 2020.
“The UAE has been at the global forefront of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic with many firsts,” Ashish Koshy, CEO of G42 Healthcare, told Arab News.
“From setting up one of the largest testing and diagnostics labs to the region’s first Phase III clinical trials for an inactivated COVID-19 vaccine, to the timely Emergency Use Authorization to protect our frontline health care workers and now a national vaccination program that has vaccinated over 52 percent of the nation’s population,” Koshy said.
“It is a global benchmark, with the UAE ranking among the top three nations in the world on per hundred being vaccinated.”
Why is genomic surveillance important for public health?
* SARS-CoV-2 genome is packed inside an envelope that contains proteins, including the spike protein.
* Mutations are changes in the virus’ genetic code that naturally occur over time when an animal or person is infected.
* Many mutations do not affect the virus’ ability to spread or cause disease because they do not alter the major proteins involved in infection.
* Surveillance of emerging variants can help detect variants with various abilities, including evasion of vaccine-induced immunity.
G42 Healthcare was established in December 2019 under the guidance of the UAE Department of Health. It partnered with the Shenzhen-based Chinese genomics company BGI to build a COVID-19 testing laboratory in the UAE, using Israeli contractors to develop technologies to fight the disease.
BGI was established in 1999 as the Beijing Genomics Institute, a state-backed laboratory assisting the Human Genome Project — a global initiative to create the first comprehensive mapping of human DNA.
G42’s COVID-19 genome sequencing study took place between May and June 2020 and involved 1,067 nasal swab samples collected in Abu Dhabi, under the oversight of the Department of Health.
The study has revealed genetic variations of the virus and spread patterns specific to the UAE. The findings are expected to improve diagnosis accuracy by enhancing the design of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, allowing them to detect new local variants.
“One of the key factors for our collective success has been the efficient and timely implementation of a public-private partnership model with international collaboration of best-in-class experts to not only address challenges but create capabilities for future-proofing the health of our nation,” Koshy said.
“One such example is the study on COVID-19 variants, which is helping us gather additional insights for pandemic management and effective public health care systems.”
The mission is particularly timely given the recent discoveries of more infectious strains of the virus in the UK, South Africa and now the worrying P1 variant spreading from Brazil, which scientists fear may be especially resistant to the current crop of vaccines.
“The analysis of this study revealed some variations specific to the UAE and patterns of the virus spread during the first wave. The analysis of second-wave samples is still ongoing on a countrywide scale,” Dr. Walid Abbas Zaher, chief research officer at G42, told Arab News.
“The results from the study and similar studies usually result in improvement in both diagnostic accuracy and sensitivity. This study also provides additional insights to sustainable screening methods and how to help the country prepare for future outbreaks.”
G42 was also responsible for coordinating Sinopharm’s Phase III clinical trials in the UAE and elsewhere in the Middle East, with more than 43,000 volunteers from 125 nationalities participating in the trials, launched in July 2020. It told Arab News that “a select group of people are being administered a third shot in order to observe their immune system response.”
It also said “the ongoing study in UAE is in close consultation between Sinopharm and the UAE authorities, based on scientific safety protocols, and as part of risk mitigation for public safety during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
Understanding slight variations and mutations may be the key to ultimately defeating the virus, ending the pandemic and — finally — lifting restrictions.
“It is known that viruses constantly change through mutation and new variants are expected to come over time — that is a part of how viruses always try to outsmart physicians,” Zaher said.
“This study and similar studies are helping to understand symptoms and how they affect the spread of the virus. Small mutations of the virus usually do not affect the vaccine. However, these mutations and their effects on the efficacy of the vaccine are still being studied for various vaccines including Sinopharm.”
Genetic analysis is a fast-growing industry. Beyond its COVID-19 research, G42 also offers consumer genomics testing, which examines an individual’s DNA and “screens” it for potential “problem areas,” Dr. Sally Mahmoud, lab director and clinical pathologist at Biogenix Labs, a G42 company, told Arab News.
“By using consumer genomics testing, a person can watch out for any lifestyle-based diseases and acquire an understanding of the potential risk factors which could lead to the development of certain inherited disorders,” she said.
In effect, understanding our DNA can help prevent or manage illnesses later on.
As the pandemic drives forward our understanding of biology’s most fundamental blueprints, new realms of opportunity are opening up in science and medicine — and the Arab region has its part to play.