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While COVID-19 vaccines are being administered in hopes of reducing the impact of the pandemic, novel variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, are spreading at accelerated rates. (1) Just as data analysis of the original strain of COVID-19 helped to determine patient care protocols and best safety practices, advanced surveillance of COVID-19 is now a critical component to understanding the new and emerging variants. That’s why Premier Medical Laboratory Services (PMLS), an award-winning molecular diagnostics laboratory, is currently conducting a large-scale genomic surveillance of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. They have now expanded their next-generation sequencing (NGS) to 21,000 specimens per week, a capacity that surpasses most laboratories due to PMLS’ implementation of cutting-edge high throughput lab equipment which automates workflow.

“We want to be proactive with these new variants in case any adjustments need to be made within the healthcare industry for patient care or new safety protocols need to be put into place,” said Kevin Murdock, founder of Premier Medical Laboratory Services. “Data is the most vital piece in beating this pandemic, so our plans are to increase our sequencing from a capacity of 21,000 specimens per week to 84,000 specimens per week by May of 2021.”

The COVID-19 virus is structured so that inside each nucleocapsid protein is the viral genome, which over time can mutate for the virus to be more efficient at spreading and to potentially cause more severe illness than the original strain. Genomic sequencing decodes the genomes to learn about the virus and how it is evolving. Standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) COVID-19 assays, the tests most widely used for detection of the COVID-19 virus, are very specific to detecting the pathogens of the original COVID-19 strain. Next generation sequencing is able to detect new pathogens so that epidemiologists can study viral genome mutations in order to understand how they affect the viral characteristics of COVID-19 and to determine future health implications the novel variants may cause.

Because library prep instruments and genomic sequencers are in short supply, many laboratories spend hours conducting library prep and sequencing manually. With PMLS’ high throughput genomic sequencers and library prep instruments that automate the library prep and sequencing process, a much higher capacity for genomic sequencing is achieved and margins of human error are drastically reduced. By sequencing an exponentially higher amount of specimens, PMLS is better equipped to provide meaningful analysis with larger amounts of data and faster turnaround times for the effective surveillance of SARS-CoV-2.

According to the CDC, this surveillance can help detect variants with:

  • Ability to spread more quickly in people
  • Ability to cause either milder or more severe disease in people
  • Ability to evade detection by specific diagnostic tests 
  • Decreased susceptibility to therapeutics that employ monoclonal antibodies
  • Ability to evade natural or vaccine-induced immunity (2)