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CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8 | cbs8.com

Scientists use DNA sequencing to track spread of coronavirus

Scripps Research lab using genomic epidemiology to find tiny mutations in virus.

SAN DIEGO — Scientists at Scripps Research in La Jolla are using genome sequencing to track the spread of coronavirus in San Diego County. They do it by analyzing tiny changes in the virus as it moves from person to person.

The coronavirus, which has infected more than 10 million people in the United States, is constantly changing, just like the flu virus.

“The flu is highly capable of evading the vaccine. And, that means every year we have to update the vaccine so it fits the variant of flu that we think is going to hit us in the upcoming flu seasons,” said Dr. Kristian Andersen, a professor in the Department of Immunology at Scripps Research.

Dr. Andersen analyzes coronavirus genomes as the virus moves around different regions of the county.

If you test a person infected with COVID-19 in Tijuana, for example, the virus might have a slightly different genome than the virus infecting a person in Oceanside.

By tracking these tiny changes, Andersen can see where the virus is moving and identify super-spreader events.

“In the absence of a vaccine, we know how the virus is evolving, which is kind of just bouncing around in evolutionary space.  The question is, once we introduce the vaccine, is it starting to look different from what we see now?” said Andersen.

Another question is, will coronavirus become resistant to the a future vaccine like the flu does?  We just don’t know yet, said Andersen.  However, he is optimistic that scientists will be able to continually update the vaccine, if necessary.

“Our ability to update the vaccine, based on this type of sequencing, is much, much, much easier than actually developing the first vaccine,” Andersen said.

Meanwhile, we need to remain vigilant as we wait for a vaccine to hit the market.

“Wearing effective face masks and physically distancing from other people is really the way that we can get this virus under control,” he said.

Andersen said super-spreading events are responsible for 80 percent of coronavirus transmissions and, most commonly, the virus is spread by talking, coughing and shouting, especially in indoor spaces.

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