Genetic mapping champion Iceland leads the way in COVID sequencing

The whole process can take up to a day and a half.

The whole process can take up to a day and a half.

Iceland has genetically sequenced all its positive COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, an increasingly vital practice as worrying new strains emerge from Britain and South Africa.

The World Health Organization on Friday urged all countries to speed up genome sequencing to help combat emerging variants.

Scientists at the Icelandic biopharmaceutical group deCODE Genetics laboratory in Reykjavik have been working tirelessly for the past 10 months, testing every positive coronavirus test in Iceland at the request of the country’s health authorities.

The goal is to track all cases to prevent problematic ones from escaping the network.

“It takes us relatively little time to do the actual sequencing,” explains laboratory chief Olafur Thor Magnusson, adding that “about three hours” is all it takes to determine the virus strain.

The whole process, from DNA isolation to sequencing, can take up to a day and a half and has allowed Iceland to identify 463 different variants, which scientists call haplotypes.

Before sequencing, the DNA from each sample is first isolated and then purified with magnetic beads.

The samples are then taken to a huge, bright room filled with equipment, where a deafening sound emanates from tiny machines that resemble scanners.

The machines are gene sequencers that map the genome of the new coronavirus.

Kari Stefansson, CEO and Founder of deCODE Genetics Says Sequencing Covid-19 Samples Is Very Easy

Kari Stefansson, CEO and Founder of deCODE Genetics Says Sequencing Covid-19 Samples Is Very Easy

World leader

Inside each machine is a black box called a “flow cell,” a glass slide that contains the DNA molecules.

This technology has played an important role in Iceland since the start of the pandemic.

“Sequencing the samples is key to helping us monitor the status and development of the epidemic,” Health Minister Svandis Svavarsdottir told AFP.

Authorities have used the sequencing information to decide on precise and specific measures to slow the spread of the virus, he said.

While the South African variant has not been detected in Iceland, 41 people have been identified as carrying the British variant.

All of them were detained at the border, where travelers are tested with PCR, effectively preventing the transmission of the variant on the sub-arctic island.

DNA identification also made it possible to establish a clear link between visitors to a pub in downtown Reykjavik and most infections in a new wave in mid-September, prompting authorities to close bars and nightclubs in the city. capital.

The sequencing also identified a separate strain of two French tourists who tested positive upon arrival in Iceland and who were initially wrongly accused of being the cause of the September surge.

The around 6,000 COVID-19 cases reported in Iceland have been sequenced, making it the world leader in COVID sequencing.

While several countries, such as Great Britain, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand, carry out high levels of sequencing, none of them come close to the levels of Iceland, although the global statistics are incomplete.

The company was founded in 1996.

The company was founded in 1996.

Child’s play

So why is Iceland so ahead of the game?

Gene mapping is deCODE’s specialty.

Founded in 1996, the company has carried out the largest genetic study of a population to date.

For a 2015 study of cancer risk factors, he sequenced the entire genome of 2,500 Icelanders and studied the genetic profile of a third of the then 330,000 population.

Compared to that, sequencing COVID-19 samples is child’s play.

“This viral genome is very easy to sequence – it’s only 30,000 nucleotides, it’s nothing,” jokes Kari Stefansson, 71-year-old founder and CEO of the company.

By comparison, the human genome that is typically analyzed in their labs consists of 3.4 billion pairs of nucleotides, or organic molecules, he adds.

While Iceland’s rigorous sequencing has been helpful in tracking the spread of the virus, it has not yet led to any major scientific discoveries for deCODE.

“If there are differences between the viruses with the different mutation patterns, they are not very obvious. Not obvious enough for us to detect them,” says Stefansson.

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© 2021 AFP

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