This is a crucial step in ensuring the effectiveness of vaccines against Covid-19: the identification of the variants of the coronavirus that cause the disease.
The United Kingdom was at the forefront with the detection in the country of a first variant which is now spreading around the world. But if the discovery of new strains worries, in reality, it helps to contain their transmission as explained to us by Leila Luheshi, director of Oxford Nanopore Technologies, British laboratory.
“We can start to say: such and such a thing is predictable”
“Initially it was very difficult to predict which mutations were going to occur,” she admits. “But now that many sequences of the virus have been studied, we are starting to see recurring characteristics: many mutations are occurring in the Spike gene which is very important for the way the virus enters our cells,” she notes. “So we can start to say, this or that is predictable; we will see more and more mutations in this gene over time,” she assures.
We ask him if this knowledge helps researchers stay ahead of future variants.
“It is important to study mutations in some genes, but the current method of sequencing the whole virus will continue to be essential,” underlines Leila Luheshi, “because over time vaccines may be used against different parts of the virus. So it would be inappropriate for us not to pay attention to other parts of the sequence,” she points out.
More practical and less expensive tools
His Oxford laboratory specializing in genomic sequencing, DNA mapping, has developed a tool to simplify the process.
Usually, a machine that analyzes DNA is the size of a large refrigerator and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in this lab, researchers have concentrated this technology into much smaller devices like the one we’re discovering that fits in the hand, costs around a thousand dollars, and plugs into a computer.
An even greater challenge for poor countries
Today, a tiny proportion of Covid cases worldwide are sequenced, raising concerns that new variants do not go unnoticed or be detected too late.
“Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are pioneers in the sequencing of a large number of positive samples,” says Gordon Sanghera, Managing Director of Oxford Nanopore Technologies.
“However, in recent weeks, we have seen the emergence of these new strains and it will be vital to ensure that if we identify a strain that escapes the vaccine, we can contain it very quickly and stop the spread of this variant. pernicious,” he assures.
These small devices can be useful in parts of the world that do not have sequencing equipment. The poor countries that are slow to see vaccines arrive are those where the next great risks related to the pandemic could emerge.