MDespite the best efforts over the past four months, the source of more than a third of known COVID-19 infections in the country is eluding doctors.
Medical researchers are using supercomputers to turn genetics labs into detective agencies. They are rolling up their sleeves to understand how the disease has spread in Canada.
Each close match will draw a line from patient to patient to finally paint a picture of the spread of the virus.
“This is the big push for the next four weeks,” said Andrew McArthur, director of the biomedical discoveries and commercialization program at McMaster University in Hamilton.
“What’s going to come out very soon is a glimpse of what just happened: how the virus circulated in the province or how it spread from one province to another,” he adds.
According to McArthur, this information will quickly identify weak spots in public health measures and help quickly counter future waves by determining their origin. Being able to keep dividing DNA codes from samples means that when there are outbreaks, each case can be quickly compared against each other to see if they are all related or if they are from multiple sources.
This means, for example, that a long-term care center should be able to quickly find out whether its 10 new cases are linked to one or more sources.
“It’s a very different infection control problem,” says McArthur.
Second wave less bad?
It also means that maybe, just maybe, the second wave of COVID-19 won’t be as bad or as difficult to control as the first, as the sources can be isolated very quickly.
“A second wave is likely,” McArthur warns. But we’ve never spent that kind of money and effort before, so maybe we can beat the virus. ”
The types of genetic technology used for this project did not exist when SARS hit Canada in 2003.
This genetic mapping is constantly looking for mutations. So far, SARS-CoV-2, the official name for the virus that causes COVID-19, has not mutated as quickly as many others. The flu, for example, changes so much over the course of a year that the vaccine must be changed every summer to keep up.
But there are enough subtle changes among the 28,000 individual markers that make up a genome for SARS-CoV-2 that each case is linked to the one that came before it. Mr. McArthur says it takes a lot of data storage, a lot of high-capacity computer analysis and a lot of money to make those comparisons.
$ 40 million from the federal government
The federal government invested $ 40 million in April for genetic research into COVID-19. Half of that is to keep an eye on the virus as it spreads, research the changes it is undergoing and map its trajectory across the country.
The other half is looking at the genetic structures of infected patients, trying to understand why some people die and others have symptoms so mild that they don’t even know they are sick.
Genome Canada is administering the project. Six regional genomics agencies locally oversee the work and laboratories carry out the tests and analyzes. The funding is intended to create genetic maps from 150,000 patients. Canada has so far recorded approximately 108,000 positive cases, and almost all of them are expected to be DNA mapped.
The results will be sent to a global database comparing all known COVID-19 infections. They will also be analyzed for national and regional reports.
In New York, genetic sequencing was used to understand that the COVID-19 that hit the Big Apple did not come from China and Iran as initially believed, but from Europe. In Canada, it is suspected that much of the virus entered the country through travelers returning from the United States in early March. But work is only just beginning to confirm this hypothesis.
Overall, McArthur predicts this genetic project will take two years of work.