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As COVID-19 variants surge, San Diego's Illumina leads race in discovering dangerous mutations

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Posted at 3:25 PM, Feb 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-10 12:45:50-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — If you remember anything from high school biology, you're probably familiar with Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection.

It's an organism's ability to adapt to its environment and change to survive. That's precisely what the coronavirus is doing. The virus is mutating and, in some cases, getting stronger. So, as humans, we're in a race with this virus, and the only way we know how to keep up with it is through sequencing. San Diego's Illumina is the leader in that race.

By now, you've probably heard that new, stronger strains of COVID-19 have reached the United States. The UK variant is in over 30 states with numerous cases in San Diego County, The South African variant was recently discovered on the east coast, and now the Brazilian variant. But those are just the stronger, more contagious variants. There are actually many more.

"This virus mutates at about 1 to 2 bases per month," says Dr. Phil Febbo, Chief Medical Officer at San Diego's Illumina.

Yes, as the virus grows worldwide and we have tens of millions of infected people, it mutates about twice a month. Sequencing the different strains, revealing the virus's whole genome, is the only way to identify and fight them.

"We've got to do good surveillance, namely do genomic sequencing surveillance so that we know when these mutations arise in our country," adds Dr. Anthony Fauci.

It was Illumina's technology that sequenced what was then the unknown virus in Shanghai, China, back in January 2020. It took only ten days from the time the first COVID-19 case was reported to the World Health Organization to discover its genome, a remarkable feat.

By comparison, it took almost five months to complete the same research on SARS in 2002.

"That's when we were off to the races with respect to developing diagnostic tests so that we could understand who had infections and start working on vaccines," says Dr. Febbo

But the problem is, as a nation, we have the technology, but we're not running the race fast enough. For example, the UK sequences about 10% of its cases, roughly 12,000 samples a week. But here in the United States, we only sequence 0.3% of positive cases, about 5,000 a week. You don't want to lose a race to a virus mutating into more contagious and, in some cases, deadlier strains. So, if we sequenced more, would we find more of those more robust variants?

"There could be many other variants, and importantly, not only do you have to detect the variants, but you have to do enough sequencing over time so that you can make the observation that any variant that you identify is starting to increase relative to others," says Dr. Febbo.

In other words, sequencing gives researchers the knowledge of how to fight these more potent strains and where to shift our resources to focus on areas that need increased testing and vaccinations. And Dr. Febbo stresses we have to learn from this pandemic because it won't be our last.

"Certainly COVID-19 will motivate each country," adds Dr. Febbo. "And us as a global community to increase our vigilance and increase our ability to detect earlier the next potential pandemic."

President Biden's American Rescue Plan allocates $400 million for a coordinated plan to sequence and creates a network to share COVID-19 cases' research. Until then, Dr. Febbo says it's important to note that as fewer people get infected with the virus, the less opportunity the virus has to mutate and grow stronger.

Until we have more vaccines, and eventually booster shots to fight those stronger strains, we have to do our part to wear masks and social distance.