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Why COVID-19 is a ‘watershed moment’ for genomic surveillance

Experts at Genome BC’s virtual conference discuss role of genomics in addressing pandemic
Credit: B.C. Centre for Disease Control

Genomics expert Bronwyn MacInnis spent the first part of the pandemic hunkered down in her parents’ basement in rural Nova Scotia before returning to work at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she serves as the director of pathogen genomic surveillance.

After stepping outside the Atlantic bubble a few months ago, she got a reminder this week about the importance of stepping outside the bubble of the scientific community.

“I was talking about the [COVID-19] variants of concern being about 70% of the tests that we're sequencing now, and the person I was speaking with – not a scientist at all – said, ‘Oh my gosh — if everything's a variant of concern, I’m never leaving my house,’” MacInnis recalled.

“[Scientists are] not really thinking about how that information is absorbed and reacted to by the public.”

MacInnis was among a host of experts addressing Genome BC’s Genomics Forum during a series of virtual panels Tuesday examining how the study of genomics has played a role in responding to the pandemic. Genome BC is a non-profit known for facilitating genomics research across the province.

And for those non-scientists attending the virtual session, MacInnis was quick to note that just because something is labelled a variant of interest or a variant of concern doesn’t mean the prognosis is dire.

“It's really scientists’ job and public health [officials’] job to be doing the surveillance to identify the highest-risk threats and make sure that we adapt our strategies in light of those,” she said.

Catalina Lopez Correa, the executive director of the Canadian COVID Genomics Network (CanCOGeN) at Genome Canada, said during the same panel that her organization has been making strides in using genomics to inform public health and policy decisions.

She said some challenges still remain in terms of data-sharing but CanCOGeN’s launch last week of a national data portal will soon hopefully change that.

“Sometimes we say that you're actually working with 13 different countries, because each of the provinces [and territories], of course, has their regulations and a way of managing the data,” Lopez Correa said.

“We have been very strong at using the data at a regional level for our decisions … Where we are not as strong is having a pan-Canadian view and sharing our data internationally.”

The Canadian VirusSeq Data Portal allows for real-time data sharing among researchers and public health experts who are now able to download standardized viral genomics data and interact with those generating the data.

By examining the COVID-19 genome sequences, scientists will be able to better detect, diagnose and anticipate the spread of new variants.

“It's clear that COVID is a watershed moment for genomic surveillance, but there's still much to be done to really robustly integrate this into public health and to make it both preventative as well as responsive,” MacInnis said.

The Genomics Forum continues through to Thursday.

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