Scientists to detect new Covid variants locally
Scientists at the University of Gibraltar can now study the DNA that forms the coronavirus germ in a bid to detect new variants quickly and aid public health officials react to the pandemic.
This means that samples no longer need to be sent to Public Health England, a lengthy process that can take up to two months due to a severe backlog.
The new equipment means scientists will be able to screen for mutations and variants within 72 hours of a positive test and alert Public Health Gibraltar.
The whole genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 will be analysed in the GHA’s Covid Laboratory, which was initially set up to screen Covid tests.
The project is led by GHA Consultant Medical Microbiologist Dr Nick Cortes and Dr Daniel Cassaglia, Consultant Paediatrician and clinical lead for the Covid laboratory.
“Knowing which variants are circulating in Gibraltar in real time will give us an important advantage in reducing the risk and managing any future Covid-19 outbreaks,” Dr Cortes said.
In a press statement, No.6 Convent Place said the lineage information will be important to help inform public health interventions.
“New mutations, variants and lineages come and go over time, and using genomic sequencing we can monitor for the minor fraction of variants that might behave differently when infecting people or encountering people with immune responses primed by vaccination or previous infection,” the Government said.
The lab is staffed by senior scientists with extensive molecular biology experience. Dr Zoe Vincent-Mistiaen is the lead PCR Molecular Biology Scientist at the Covid Laboratory, with Charlotte Gillborn-Jones, GHA Biomedical Scientist in Microbiology, and GHA Dr Martyn Bell, who has extensive experience in genetic sequencing academic research at Oxford University and has been temporarily seconded to the Covid laboratory to set up this service.
“The Gibraltar Covid Lab are currently in the process of enrolling as a member of a UK genome sequencing consortium (COG-UK) based at Cambridge University,” Dr Cortes said.
“The team will be sharing all the virus sequences obtained in Gibraltar with the consortium and, in that way, contribute to the world-wide knowledge of covid variants and patterns of transmission.”
The project has, over the last few weeks, assembled an expert scientific team and procured highly specialised sequencing equipment and chemical reagents.
The sequencing work, consisting of initial validation before formal processing commences, has started this week.
Dr Zoe Vincent-Mistiaen will also be attending the Francis Crick Institute in London next week for hands-on experience and advanced technical advice on the sequencing process.
“Until now, the GHA have sent a number of positive samples to Public Health England reference laboratories in the UK,” Dr Daniel Cassaglia said.
“The results have taken up to two months to be reported due to a backlog caused by the large number of sequences being carried out in the UK. The local team aims to sequence all new positive cases in Gibraltar within 72 hours of a positive test so that the exact SARS-CoV-2 viral lineage causing the Covid-19 infection can be identified early on.”
The Minister for Health Samantha Sacramento thanked Dr Cassaglia and Dr Cortes for their work.
“Thanks to this further innovation, the GHA can gain a better understanding of the epidemiology, transmissibility and origin of the different variants affecting us in Gibraltar,” she said.
“It will also help with contact tracing and allow us to quickly suppress any variants of concern which may include those that are known to be less susceptible to current vaccines.”