The Biden Administration recently announced a $1.7 billion investment to monitor new and emerging COVID-19 variants which could induce another pandemic wave. Concurrently, to combat these mutated strains, advanced molecular diagnostics laboratory, Premier Medical Laboratory Services announces their launch of one of the nation’s largest variant surveillance initiatives. Now conducting genomic sequencing of 6,000 specimens per day, PMLS plans to increase that number to 12,000 by May. The large amounts of data gathered by this initiative will help protect the population from a future surge and cases with increased severity of symptoms.
When speaking on Pfizer’s ability to adjust the vaccine for effective inoculation against the new variants, a Pfizer Executive said Saturday, “You can basically, within a couple of weeks, put a new sequence in.” In order to make these adjustments to vaccines, scientists developing them need genomic sequencing data on a large scale, like that being produced by PMLS.
Scientific Director of Clinical Genetics for PMLS, Vidhya Narayanan commented, “Sequening information and population studies can give us vital information regarding evolution of the COVID 19 virus and transmission pattern which otherwise can go unnoticed.”
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 tests, which are 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 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 high throughput genomic sequencers and library prep instruments that automate the library prep and sequencing process, PMLS achieves a much higher capacity for genomic sequencing. By monitoring 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.
“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 we made this a top priority to aquire the most advanced sequencing equipment and top scientists to help monitor them.”
Of growing concern, among other variants, is the Indian variant (B.1.617), which has spread to the UK and made landfall in California approximately two weeks ago. This variant is potentially the catalyst for a recent surge of cases in India and is believed to have more rapid rates of transmission than the original strain like the UK variant (B.1.1.7) that is estimated 50 percent more than the standard form of SARS-CoV-2 which is also been shown to cause higher mortality rates. (1,2)
Other current known variants:
- Brazil (P.1)
- South Africa (B.1.351)
- California (B.1.427/B.1.429)
- New York (B.1.526)
The high-volume sequencing being conducted at PMLS follows suit with COVID-19 testing solutions they have provided as a laboratory with one of the highest testing capacities in the nation. Their ability to test over 300,000 specimens per day for COVID-19 paired with their rapid turnaround of accurate results is why they are the chosen laboratory to conduct testing for Human Health Services surge sites, large organizations, schools, athletic teams, and state health departments across the US.
According to the CDC, genomic 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 (3)