UNC doctors tracking COVID-19 through next-generation genetic sequencing

Posted at 2:50 PM, Nov 12, 2020

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - This week, we've heard promises surrounding treatment and vaccines related to COVID-19.

Now, doctors at the University of North Carolina (UNC) are using next-generation genetic sequencing of the virus causing COVID-19 that can help testing and therapeutics.

Dr. Dirk Dittmer, professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine, has kept a close eye on COVID-19.

“We know now more about this virus than any other virus before,” Dittmer told News 3. “The team has been working 24/7 ever since we had the first cases in March.”

He and others are looking at how next-generation genetic sequencing can help with tracking mutations of the virus.

“What we were looking at using next-generation technology is if the virus changes, who is the first person that had the virus in North Carolina? And, as we accumulated more and more cases, were these the same types of viruses we're seeing anywhere else in the world,” Dittmer said. “Very early on, we were able to show that one of the mutations that have been around in Europe was actually coming to the U.S.”

The state-funded study shows this sequencing can help with the accuracy of diagnostic testing and vaccine effectiveness.

“We wanted to make sure that the tests that were developed very early on would still work now and next year. The takeaway is they still work,” he said. “One of the worries that people have is that the virus might change, and therefore, today's vaccine might not work next year.”

“Studies like this are part of the ongoing quality control and safety monitoring for vaccines,” Dittmer added.

News 3 medical expert Dr. Ryan Light said this sequencing can help in the fight against the virus.

“We can tell if it's changed a little bit, we can tell where that virus is coming from,” Light said. “It tells us where the outbreak is coming from, where the danger areas are, and it tells us that our therapies are still working.

Meanwhile, Dittmer's lab will continue using this sequencing to track the virus through the end of the year.

“We're just a little piece of the puzzle that helps every one to get rid of this thing,” he said.

This story was first reported by Zak Dahlheimer at WTKR in Norfolk, Virginia.