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Can Genetics Help Fight The Spread Of COVID-19?

Coronavirus blood test in hospital laboratory
(Photo: Getty Images)

The United States recently surpassed every other country in terms of total confirmed COVID19 cases. Understanding the virus is more important than ever for our nation's ability to combat the spread. Virginia scientists are making headlines for a new approach to learning more about where Virginia cases are coming from. Can genetics help fight the spread of COVID-19? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

Scientists around the world are working tirelessly to understand as much about the novel coronavirus as possible, like where it's been and where it's going. But the big question is, how do we track the virus without physically tracking every single person it’s encountered? To answer that question some scientists are turning to genetics.

Using genetics, scientists are learning more about how to trace where COVID19 cases have traveled. Virginia is leading the way in this research thanks to some of the first public labs in the nation to use genetics to better understand this virus and hopefully find a few ways to combat the spread. So why does the study of a virus' genes matter?

For starters, the human genome is made of over 3 billion genetic building blocks housed in our DNA, and is basically responsible for everything about what makes us who we are. The novel coronavirus genome only has about 30,000 building blocks, but like our own these building blocks can change from time to time. Those small genetic changes are called mutations. When these mutations happen it leaves a kind of genetic time-stamp on the virus, letting scientists know where and when the last small change took place in the virus' genome.

In this case, these mutation-time-stamps help scientists see the relationships between particular outbreaks. Kind of like how we can trace all humans back to a single, specific ancestor on our family tree, genetic studies allow us to do the same thing with the novel coronavirus.

The benefits here would be to gauge success of quarantining and social distancing, as people isolate themselves strains of the virus will die off since they’re not allowed to replicate, change, and ultimately keep spreading. Currently, the genetic sequences studied so far show evidence of multiple introductions of the novel coronavirus into Virginia. By looking at the similarity of the virus in Virginia to viral genetic information obtained from Asian and European patients, scientists can see that Virginia’s COVID19 spread is due to multiple distinct events.

This genetic detective is valuable for us to better understand where potential future outbreaks are coming from and to further inform the public on the benefits of social distancing measures. This would also help inform decisions on which areas need to be further contained and quarantined to help slow the spread of this virus.

Stay tuned as scientists continue to work on new ways to learn more about this pandemic. Till then, stay safe and healthy out there everyone!

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