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Science and Innovations

TGen North’s Genetic Research At Forefront Of Coronavirus Response

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A nonprofit research facility in Flagstaff is now at the forefront of Arizona’s emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic. Scientists at TGen North developed a test for the disease now being used in Coconino County and are also tracking its origin and spread through genetic research. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with TGen North’s director David Engelthaler about what they’ve learned about the virus and its transmission.   

Melissa Sevigny: So what’s different about this situation compared to the seasonal flu or some of those other diseases like SARS or MERS?

David Engelthaler: Probably one of the biggest differences is that this particular virus is dropping in on top of an existing flu season. Which is really tough on the health care community anyway, and it’s tough on those special populations. So you have something drop in on top that causes many more cases of serious disease and unfortunately death, it really does put a strain on the overall system. The fact that it’s a new virus, too, means we’re still learning a lot about this. We don’t understand the long term effects are going to be. We don’t understand if people are going to get immunity after a while and will that immunity last? A lot of things we’re still learning about this virus. But it is certainly making a bad respiratory situation—a bad respiratory season—much, much worse.

You talked about how it’s a new virus. How do we know that? It is possible that this was already circulating in our communities and we just weren’t testing for it?

We can really trace back the genomic lineages to this all coming out of Wuhan, China… This is definitely a new virus and we can trace all the lineages back to a single originating strain out of China. So even though we weren’t testing for it, the virus just didn’t exist before December of last year, at least in human populations.

And that genetic research is something you do there at TGen North?

It is. That’s kind of our bread and butter, is using genomics, the power of DNA sequencing, to understand the genetic material of organisms, specifically pathogens, and in this case specifically the COVID 19 virus…. and we’re working with partners across the state in Arizona as well as in neighboring areas of the Southwest to both diagnosis cases as well as do surveillance and try to understand how’s it spreading in communities maybe where there’s asymptomatic cases; health care workers or jail populations, places like that have not been clearly understood as to the impact of this virus. 

What about a vaccine, can you tell me the latest on developing a vaccine for this disease?

Everybody is racing to try to get something out there that we know is both safe and effective. Part of the problem is, we still don’t understand the disease enough to know how long immunity would last from a vaccine, even if it is seemingly protective. We just know that mass production of vaccine, even if we find a great candidate, it could still take many months. That could easily be a year off before there’s a vaccine out there. There are other things being looked at… We also know there are some groups looking at taking antibodies from people that have recovered, and using that as a treatment. We’ve done this many times before, using antibodies treatments, and in this particularly case the hope is that will be available much sooner than any new drugs or new vaccines.

In the meantime we’re all working on working from home, social distancing measures, staying six feet apart, can you talk about why these things are important and how effective they are?

It really is important to follow these public health guidances that are coming out, in some cases mandates. The use of self-quarantine, social distancing, not going out into public with others, at least in enclosed spaces, and staying six feet apart, all that is important to slow the spread of the virus. You can imagine the virus itself essentially wants to move from person to person. If we’re doing all those things, we’re preventing that virus from escaping people and infecting others. We strongly recommend people follow these measures. It is slowing down the spread of the virus. In the end it may not lower the total number of cases, but it may spread that total number of cases out over a longer period of time. It means we have the pain of this outbreak going on longer, but it means that our healthcare system can absorb the most serious patients a lot better if we do stretch it out, what they call “flattening the curve.”

Thank you for your work, and David Engelthaler, thank you for speaking with me today.

Thanks, Melissa.

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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