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Labs in Arizona create union to track coronavirus

Posted at 3:58 PM, Apr 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-08 20:36:46-04

PHOENIX — Scientists around the world are frantically trying to better understand the coronavirus to help stop its spread.

Labs in our state recently formed a union dedicated to tracking the virus and mapping its genetic make up.

“This information is going to be used by public health officials and already is, to better understand this virus and how it’s moving around and where it’s coming from and maybe where it’s going,” said Dr David Engelhaler, co-director of TGen North.

Utilizing supercomputers, scientists with the translational Genomics Research Institute and others around the state are plugging in data as they work around the clock to genetically sequence coronavirus strains in Arizona.

“We’ve already sequenced well over a hundred of Arizona's first cases,” said Dr Engelhaler.

Each case can have a different genetic makeup and fingerprints of where it’s been and where it’s going.

“We can track what states they’re coming from or what countries they seem to be most related to and then we can actually see which ones are actually causing outbreaks that need a lot of attention,” said Dr. Engelhaler.

Dr Engelhaler says other strains can fizzle out and spread very little, critical information that can help guide the public health response.

“These genomes are telling us that before we took extensive measures statewide, this virus was already established and transmitting successfully,” said Dr. Michael Worobey from the University of Arizona.

Worobey says the strain that seems to have spread the most in our state, originated out of Europe following its spread out of Wuhan China.

The team is also watching for mutations in the virus that could impact the effectiveness of tests and future vaccines.

“We don’t see anything like that right now but we’re watching for it to see if these mutations are going to change the ability of our diagnostics tests to work and whether they have the potential to affect our vaccine strategies in the future,” said Dr. Paul Keim, executive director of the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute at Northern Arizona University.