Newswise — In an effort to monitor the spread of COVID-19 variants in the State of Maryland, University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, announced that UMaryland Genomics at UMSOM will perform genome sequencing of variants in at least 10 percent of COVID-19 test samples, reaching an important benchmark set by the federal government to help control the spread of these variants.
The State has entered into separate agreements with UMSOM and Johns Hopkins Medicine in an effort to double the state’s surveillance of coronavirus variants to more than 10 percent of COVID-19 cases, Governor Larry Hogan announced at a recent press conference. This would enable Maryland to achieve the surveillance goal set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor the spread of variants.
The sequencing is being conducted at UMaryland Genomics, a high-throughput sequencing and analysis center at the UMSOM’s Institute for Genome Sciences (IGS). The laboratory team, which has more than two decades of high-throughput sequencing expertise, initiated viral genome sequencing last week to identify variants in positive samples containing the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19.
“We are monitoring for any variants including those that were originally discovered in South Africa, the United Kingdom and Brazil, which tend to be more contagious,” said Jacques Ravel, PhD, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at UMSOM and Associate Director of IGS. “Viral genome sequencing can detect new variants that are circulating, and we do not yet know about.”
Information from variant monitoring can be used in multiple ways. First and foremost, it can provide valuable surveillance data to state health officials on the spread of variants through local cities and communities. This information can be used along with contact tracing to determine whether certain variants are more contagious. It can also be used to determine whether vaccinations are protecting against these variants.
“If a previously vaccinated individual tests positive for SARS-CoV-2, genome sequencing can tell us whether they contracted a variant strain,” said Luke Tallon of IGS, and Scientific Director of UMaryland Genomics, which is conducting the sequencing and analysis. “This information will help us to determine whether vaccines protect against variants.”
Over the past year, UMaryland Genomics at UMSOM, in collaboration with the University of Maryland Pathology Associates (UMPA) and with support from the State, has successfully performed more than 750,000 COVID-19 tests throughout the state, including the majority of testing for universities, nursing home facilities, urgent care locations, and correctional facilities. The new sequencing effort will involve using positive test samples identified by the testing lab.
“Since we refocused much of our high-throughput laboratory infrastructure to COVID-19 testing almost a year ago, we have achieved many impressive milestones that have enabled us to become an important partner with the State of Maryland in helping to provide rapid and accurate testing to Maryland residents,” said Claire Fraser, PhD, the Dean’s Endowed Professor and Director of IGS. “Our new mission to perform genome sequencing of variants is a natural progression of this effort, and we are proud to partner with the State once again on this important public health mission.”
Over the past two decades, UMaryland Genomics/IGS at UMSOM have contributed to large-scale genome sequencing and analysis of prior viral outbreaks, including influenza, rhinovirus (common cold), Zika, Ebola, and others.
UMSOM Dean E. Albert Reece added: “We are delighted to partner with the State of Maryland on this important effort, and the UMSOM community can be proud of the tremendous collaboration that has taken place between UMaryland Genomics/IGS and UMPA, and between UMSOM, UMB and MDH to make these testing and surveillance efforts successful. We owe all of these teams a debt of gratitude for the essential role they are playing in helping the State effectively manage the COVID-19 response.”
About the University of Maryland School of Medicine
Now in its third century, the University of Maryland School of Medicine was chartered in 1807 as the first public medical school in the United States. It continues today as one of the fastest growing, top-tier biomedical research enterprises in the world -- with 45 academic departments, centers, institutes, and programs; and a faculty of more than 3,000 physicians, scientists, and allied health professionals, including members of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and a distinguished two-time winner of the Albert E. Lasker Award in Medical Research. With an operating budget of more than $1.2 billion, the School of Medicine works closely in partnership with the University of Maryland Medical Center and Medical System to provide research-intensive, academic and clinically based care for nearly 2 million patients each year. The School of Medicine has more than $563 million in extramural funding, with most of its academic departments highly ranked among all medical schools in the nation in research funding. As one of the seven professional schools that make up the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus, the School of Medicine has a total population of nearly 9,000 faculty and staff, including 2,500 student trainees, residents, and fellows. The combined School of Medicine and Medical System (“University of Maryland Medicine”) has an annual budget of nearly $6 billion and an economic impact more than $15 billion on the state and local community. The School of Medicine, which ranks as the 8th highest among public medical schools in research productivity, is an innovator in translational medicine, with 600 active patents and 24 start-up companies. The School of Medicine works locally, nationally, and globally, with research and treatment facilities in 36 countries around the world. Visit medschool.umaryland.edu