Flagstaff scientists are using live COVID-19 to verify Arizona cases and see whether this strain has changed since the outbreak began.
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Scientists in Flagstaff worked with the live coronavirus for the first time on Friday. TGen North received the sample from the NIH on Thursday and is using it to verify samples from patients in Arizona.
TGen North is working with the virus in a biosafety level three lab, which is where viruses like coronavirus, rabies, and tuberculosis are handled. People working inside are extra protected as they work to extract the genome sequence from the ever-developing COVID-19 virus.
“We’re providing an additional level of analysis that’s not really available anywhere else,” TGen North Director, Dr. David Engelthaler said.
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Engelthaler said procedures are followed in the lab to get the DNA, known as RNA in this case, separated out over a time period of an hour or up to a day or more. He said they’re looking at the RNA to understand what makes up the virus and verify it in other samples.
“So that we can not only prove that the virus is there but understand what strain of the virus is there,” Engelthaler said.
The sequencing scientists are doing is extremely specific.
“We actually can determine whether or not it’s more closely related to strains coming out of China, out of Hong Kong, out of Italy or if they’re starting to circulate here in the U.S.,” Engelthaler said.
The team at TGen North has received a sample from the second case of coronavirus out of Maricopa County. Engelthaler said they’ll verify it, look at the RNA and any mutations.
“How many times do those mutations occur? Where do they occur? How’s it going to change the virus? And how fast is it evolving? Because that means we may have to continue to develop a new diagnostic test to keep up with that change,” Engelthaler said.
TGen North is expecting to get FDA approval for a more thorough test than the CDC and the State of Arizona are using to diagnose COVID-19 as early as the end of next week.
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Scientists will continue studying coronavirus, as Engelthaler says organisms generally become less deadly as outbreaks continue, but the future of the virus is still unknown.
“Hopefully that’s the case here, that it will become less deadly. But unfortunately, it may become more easily spread and will see even more widespread than it is,’’ Engelthaler said.
TGen will also be assisting the state with any overflow of coronavirus samples as the virus spreads.