SA scientists start genome sequencing project to study COVID-19 progression

The study by the South African Medical Research Council means they will break down the patients’ genetic building blocks to see if they are predisposed to developing a more severe form of the disease.

Professor Craig Kinnear, a manager at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) genomics centre, is helping to investigate why some COVID-19 patients developed a more severe form of the disease, compared to others who experienced less severe or no symptoms at all. Picture: Supplied

CAPE TOWN - The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) has launched a research study to investigate why some COVID-19 patients developed a more severe form of the disease, compared to others who experienced less severe or no symptoms at all.

Four provinces in the country are already battling a third wave of the pandemic, with more than 56,900 people having lost their lives to the disease.

To answer the question of COVID-19 disease progression, scientists at SAMRC’s Cape Town campus have begun sequencing the genomes of around 50 patients.

This means they will break down the patients’ genetic building blocks to see if they are predisposed to developing a more severe form of the disease.

Manager at the SAMRC's genomics centre, Professor Craig Kinnear explained.

“It’s still a work in progress. We've only recently completed sequencing of approximately 50 individuals. Some of them will have the severe COVID, others would have the multi-system inflammatory syndrome and we're now busy doing data analysis to determine which genes or which immune pathways are involved.”

Kinnear said that it was particularly important to conduct such studies on home soil.

"Because we've got a unique population in South Africa, we suspect that some of these may be different to what is already seen elsewhere in the world. That is what we're investigating in terms of severe COVID."

He explained how the project would aid better treatment regimens.

“If you know what gene causes a disease, you know what protein is defective and one could then target interventions to that particular protein.

“The genomics centre was built on the idea that we want to promote precision medicine in South Africa. So with doing something like this, identifying particular mutations in genes for an individual, helps us to then tailor treatment and management towards an individual patient instead of a one size fits all approach,” said Kinnear.

Scientists have teamed up with clinicians at the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch as well as the Red Cross War Memorial Hospital to conduct the research which will be expanded to include more participants.

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