How Does Next Generation Sequencing Help Scientists Combat COVID-19?

Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology is a powerful tool with multiple uses. It enables scientists to sequence an entire human genome in just one day, provides unparalleled insight into the human microbiome, and can be used to identify novel pathogens. It has also played a key role in helping scientists understand COVID-19 in order to stop the spread and create effective vaccines.

COVID-19 has rapidly evolved since it was first discovered in early 2020. In fact, there are a whopping 4,000 mutations in the virus’ S protein gene alone. While most of these mutations have not made a significant difference in the international spread and mortality rate of the virus, some variations, such as Delta and Omicron, have caused significant problems upon becoming an area’s dominant variant.

In times past, labs around the world would have used Sanger sequencing to detect virus mutations, and this technology is still used in labs in developing nations around the world. However, Sanger sequencing is far slower and provides lower-quality results than next generation sequencing. Using NGS, scientists can quickly and efficiently identify new mutations and inform national governments of the spread of potentially dangerous variants. NGS is also used to screen potential COVID-19 therapeutics to help pharmaceutical companies develop effective remedies for one or more strains of the virus. Vaccine manufacturers use the information provided by next generation sequencing to create effective vaccines and to determine if a particular vaccine is effective in combating a new COVID-19 mutation.

Next generation sequencing is also an effective testing tool. It received emergency use authorization from the FDA in early 2020 and Illumina’s COVIDSeq sequencing-based COVID-19 test was distributed to early access sites to help medical professionals quickly identify patients who had contracted the novel coronavirus. What is more, the test made it possible for labs to scale diagnostic testing and provided results in 24 hours, and its high degree of accuracy lowered the odds of individuals receiving either a false negative or false positive results, ensuring that people who had contracted COVID-19 were isolated to prevent the spread of the sickness while those who didn’t have COVID-19 weren’t put in close contact with positive patients.

An added benefit of using NGS technology is that it is far more affordable than alternative sequencing options. Targeted gene expression profiling costs a mere $23 per sample while 16S metagenomic sequencing is only $18 per sample when using Illumina’s NGS technology tools.

Without NGS, it would take far longer to identify variants of concern than it currently does. Hospitals would not be able to get variant-specific results for COVID-19 tests in order to provide needed care and treatment. It would also be hard for medical professionals to identify respiratory co-infections and many testing centers would struggle to provide fast test results. These problems could cause a huge surge in hospitalizations and COVID-19-related deaths as the novel coronavirus has spread quickly thanks to international travel, and it is continually mutating in ways that enable it to spread even faster and more effectively. While NGS has not received nearly as much public notice and acclaim as vaccines and treatment options such as monoclonal antibodies, it has played a vital role in helping scientists understand COVID-19, track changes in the virus, and create effective vaccines and treatment options to mitigate the spread of the virus and lower the odds of complications and death.

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