BC to track origins and spread of new coronavirus with genomic technology

With funding from Genome BC, the BC Centre for Disease Control’s (BCCDC) Public Health Laboratory will be able to identify where new cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in BC are coming from and monitor any spread in the community. While the risk of disease spread in British Columbia remains low at this time, the number of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide has climbed to over 70,000. With this in mind the BCCDC is adding a critical new dimension to its outbreak response capabilities by incorporating genomic analysis into tracking. This initiative is a $150,000 pilot study supported by Genome BC’s Strategic Initiatives Fund. For humans, we can represent where we come from as a family tree, based on prior knowledge of relationships or the sequence of our DNA — the building blocks of all living things. We can represent viruses the same way. For each new strain, in each new patient, the sequence (of DNA, or related RNA depending on the virus) allows us to place that strain in the larger family tree. If the new strain has a close relative we’ve seen already in BC, for example, it may be part of a locally-transmitted cluster; if the new strain is more closely related to virus strains recorded in another country, it might be a new introduction to BC.  This information enables BCCDC to work with local public health authorities to guide and evaluate interventions. Since this kind of information informs real time decision making, it’s essential that this work take full advantage of new rapid, potentially mobile, sequencing technologies.