National COVID-19 tracking system based on genomics
Public health laboratories will aim to sequence the virus genomes of all positive COVID-19 tests in Australia and track COVID-19 using genomics across the country, rather than state by state, under a new initiative spearheaded by Australia’s public health laboratory organisations and leading industry partners.
Pathogen genomics can reveal information that would otherwise be missed, including rapid insights into the behaviour, spread and evolution of COVID-19. Other benefits of genomics include the ability to identify mutations of COVID-19 in the Australian population to inform the design of treatments and vaccines, and the capacity to precisely identify persistent infection versus reinfection or inactive infection.
The Communicable Disease Genomics Network (CDGN) and Illumina are now collaborating to track COVID-19 using next-generation genomic sequencing technology, which enables real-time data sharing and integration to better understand the transmission and spread of the virus. Coordinated by the CDGN, the effort has been described as the first national implementation of pathogen surveillance and a critical step forward in Australia’s pandemic response, with an immediate application in the investigation of outbreaks — including identification of emerging outbreaks and transmission events as part of efforts to reduce community transmission.
“The CDGN has been working to establish a nationally integrated pathogen genomics initiative that will facilitate the rapid implementation of this project, ensuring national access and consistency in genomics analyses,” said Professor Ben Howden, Co-Chair of the CDGN. “Information on the national transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 will be important to informing future public health responses in Australia.”
The Australian Government has provided a $3.3 million Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) grant for the project through UNSW Sydney’s School of Medical Sciences. The grant will also help to build support in other jurisdictional public health laboratories and, with the added support of state and territory governments, will aim to sequence virus genomes of all positive COVID-19 tests in Australia.
“This research will provide us with a better understanding of the behaviour, spread and evolution of COVID-19, thanks to the precision of next-generation sequencing technology,” said UNSW Conjoint Professor Bill Rawlinson. “The project will enable us to measure the impact of using this technology not only for the COVID-19 pandemic, but also for future responses.”
Illumina has meanwhile contributed more than $2 million worth of its genomic sequencing systems and related consumables, set to be delivered to the Doherty Institute, Westmead Hospital, UNSW at the Prince Of Wales Hospital and Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services. This will expand the capacity of the four major public health laboratories in NSW, Victoria and Queensland to sequence pathogens, including COVID-19 samples.
“This is a leading global example that will demonstrate the unique value of genomics surveillance in understanding and helping to control the COVID-19 pandemic, and Illumina is thrilled to be an instrumental partner of this effort,” said Dr Phil Febbo, Illumina’s Chief Medical Officer.
“The program will allow sharing of vital pathogen data with the use of bioinformatics across states and territories assuring that the sequencing of viral and other pathogens is not limited to this pandemic but will continue to expand in both academic research and the public health systems going forward.”
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