Scientists and technicians at the National Administration of Laboratories and Health Institutes (ANLIS), Doctor Carlos G. Malbrán (more commonly known as the ANLIS-Malbrán Institute) have managed to successfully sequence the complete genome of SARS COV-2, the virus that causes the Covid-19 coronavirus disease.
Experts carried out the work using samples from three Argentine patients and it enables them to know the strain that is circulating in the country.
This information will be key in ensuring the quality of diagnosis of the virus, complementing epidemiological surveillance of the virus in Argentina and will also contribute to the development of a vaccine for the strains circulating in the country and the wider region.
“We have been working with this technology for six years now. Achieving [the] sequencing of the virus genome is an institutional achievement that allows Argentina to be put on the world map," Josefina Campos, the co-ordinator of the Genomic and Bioinformatics Platform at the Institute told Perfil.
She also said the information would be added to the GISAID private-public initiative that is pooling information on the virus and allowing researchers to understand how the novel coronavirus evolves and spreads across the globe.
“At a national level, it allows us to follow the epidemic in real time, because these are the first genomes,” said Campos, who was a key member of the team that deciphered the genome.
“The idea is to continue with more samples, with which we will be able to observe its local evolution and ensure diagnosis – we will be able to know if the diagnostic tests that they are using today and that are being developed are focused on our genome, [if they] are responding correctly – and, in turn, they are going to allow our genome to be considered in the selection of strains for the development of vaccines.”
The news, revealed by the Health Ministry in a statement and praised by President Alberto Fernández, was announced after government officials visited the institute on Tuesday. The Peronist leader praised the institute’s staff and expressed his admiration for their work in a post on Twitter.
Health Minister Ginés González García said the development was “very important, not only for the present, but for the future, because viruses are not all the same.”
He added: “This investigation was able to determine the origin of these viruses and what characteristics they have.”
The genome of any organism, including a virus, is the molecular instructions that are necessary in order for its operation and transmission to other parties. This information is written, in genetic code, in the form of RNA, or Ribonucleic acid. Sequencing a virus genome allows experts to 'read' that instruction manual.
“It is knowing the information that the virus has in its genome; that's the difference between other sequencing technologies. This technology is revolutionising the pandemic since it allows studying the virus in real time,” explained Campos.
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Genome sequencing is key to understanding the dynamics and diversity of the viral population of SARS-CoV-2 and its transmission routes in Argentina.
“The introductions [of the virus into Argentina] that we could observe were what we expected due to the epidemiological context. We sequenced the virus genome from the first patients we had in the country, with introductions from Europe and the United States primarily but also some from primary contact. They belong to a lineage that is the most predominant after it left China, which is 2A," the specialist explained.
As a virus replicates and copies itself, sometimes this causes errors in its RNA. These are known as “mutations.” All viruses undergo mutations, but those changes are not necessarily associated with an increased severity of infection.
"Some mutations have been studied in Spain that could be associated epidemiologically with more serious conditions but that’s not been scientifically proven yet," said Campos.
Simultaneously, under a research programme that brings together specialists from universities across Argentina, staff at the Malbrán are also documenting local mutations of the virus. In addition to their work on genome sequencing, they will analyse clinical and epidemiological data from patients confirmed as having coronavirus in the country. Another objective is to study the potential transmission of the coronavirus in the wider environment and animal reservoirs.
Claudia Perandones, the ANLIS-Malbrán’s scientific director, hailed the efforts of the scientists and technicians at the institute, saying it was “a very important achievement” at a time of great “difficulty.”