CSIRO unlocks the secret to tracking the virus as it evolves

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Researchers from the CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, have unveiled a new approach to analysing the genetic codes – or the blueprint – of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

The findings will help researchers better understand how strains of the virus evolve and help identify new clusters of the virus as well as helping to fast track understanding of this complex disease.

The researchers developed a novel visualisation platform, underpinned by bioinformatics algorithms originally used to analyse the human genome, to pinpoint differences among the thousands of genetic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall said knowing the genetic code was vital.

“The more we know about this virus, the better armed we’ll be to fight it,” Dr Marshall said.

“This highly complex analysis of the genome sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has already helped to determine which strains of the virus are suitable for testing vaccines underway at the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness in Geelong – the only high biocontainment facility of its kind in the southern hemisphere.”

Dr Denis Bauer from the CSIRO’s bioinformatics team said that as the virus evolved, the blueprint becomes increasingly important, effectively because it holds instructions about the behaviour of the virus and what kind of disease it can cause.

“Globally there is now a huge amount of individual virus sequences,” Dr Bauer said.

“Assessing the evolutionary distance between these data points and visualising it helps researchers find out about the different strains of the virus – including where they came from and how they continue to evolve.”

Co-author of the research Professor S.S. Vasan, from the CSIRO’s dangerous pathogens team, who is leading the SARS-CoV-2 virus work and vaccine evaluation studies, said the first 181 published genome sequences from the current COVID-19 outbreak were analysed to understand how changes in the virus could affect its behaviour and impact.

“This RNA virus is expected to evolve into a number of distinct clusters that share mutations, which is what we have confirmed and visualised,” Prof. Vasan said.

“At this time, we do not expect it will affect the development and evaluation of COVID-19 vaccines, therapies and diagnostics, but it is important information to monitor as preclinical and clinical studies progress.

“To enable this, we are calling on the international research community to share de-identified details of case severity and outcome, and other relevant metadata such as co-morbidities and smoking status, alongside the genomic sequences of the virus.”

For the latest advice, information and resources, go to www.health.gov.au, or call the 24-hour National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you require translating or interpreting services, call 131 450. Details of your state or territory public health agency are available at www.health.gov.au/state-territory-contacts.

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