UNC researchers using COVID-19 genetic sequences to track where it comes from


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – As coronavirus cases rise across North Carolina and the country, scientists at the University of North Carolina are are tracking how the virus is changing and where cases are coming from.

At Dr. Dirk Dittmer’s Lab at UNC, scientists study the genetic sequence of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Dittmer explained: “I think of it like a book. The virus has 30,000 characters. We have to read those over and over without making a single mistake.”

Reading that genetic information allows researchers to trace where the virus comes from.

“Every time the virus jumps from one person to the next a tiny bit of the information changes,” Dittmer said.

Finding similar strains can help researchers figure out where someone caught the virus. That can ultimately help with contact tracing.

“Was there a cluster of a lot of people that all of a sudden have the same virus sequence?” Dittmer said. “That would indicate a super-spreading event.”

The genetic sequence can also show scientists whether the virus is changing in a way that could make testing for COVID-19 less effective. Fortunately, Dittmer said research shows the tests developed early in the pandemic still work.

“And they’re going to work next year, as well, because those parts of the virus did not change,” he added.

Knowing how the virus changes can help in developing vaccines, as well. The more scientists know about it, the more they can work to control the spread.

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