The Human Genetics and Genomic Community Helps Fight the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Megan Mitzelfelt, PhD; Senior Manager, Organizational Advancement & Carrie Morin, CEM; Associate Director, Exhibits

Many are working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic – first responders, physicians, nurses, and scientists. ASHG is so very grateful for the many individuals and organizations within the human genetics and genomics community who are working tirelessly to care for the sick, build testing capacity, and develop treatments to save millions of lives. Below are several examples of how individuals and organizations in the community, including those in academia, industry, and government, have come together to stop this pandemic.

Better Together

ASHG leaders, including past presidents, Drs. Les Biesecker and Nancy Cox, along with numerous leading human geneticists from across the globe have joined the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, which brings together the human genetics community to “generate, share, and analyze data to learn the genetic determinants of COVID-19 susceptibly, severity, and outcomes.”

Serving as director and chair of the Global COVID-19 Relief Coalition, ASHG member Dr. Michael Snyder is also leading a coalition of leading labs and universities from across the world to crowdsource “coronatech.” The group is running a hackathon to rapidly develop solutions, increasing access to and directing resources to where they are needed most, and fighting misinformation. “Let’s come together to harness the best of our 21st century technologies to deal with our 21st century problem,” says Dr. Snyder.

Likewise, seventeen health systems and technology companies formed a COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition to use data and analytics to better understand the effectiveness of measures taken to curb the spread of the virus, identify those who need diagnostic tests, and aid the U.S. healthcare delivery system.

Ramping Up Testing and Treatments

Integrated DNA Technologies recently received approval from the FDA to manufacture a key component of SARS-CoV-2 testing kits – primers and probes that detect the viral genome. Since the beginning of March, IDT has shifted resources toward this fight, shipping enough kits for 1 million tests on March 9th, and ramping up production to produce up to five million kits per week. Likewise, on March 24th, QIAGEN began shipping test kits to the U.S. that can differentiate SARS-CoV-2 from 20 other respiratory infections in just one hour. Also, ThermoFisher Scientific received FDA Emergency Use Authorization for its SARS-CoV-2 tests.

Regeneron is moving quickly on a potential therapy, estimating that it will begin clinical trials this summer for a COVID-19 antibody cocktail therapy. Using a proprietary technology, the company has produced neutralizing antibodies against the novel virus using a humanized mouse model that could be used either as a vaccine or a treatment for the infected. Meanwhile, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases has partnered with Moderna, Inc, to rapidly launch a phase 1 clinical trial for an investigational vaccine at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle.

Sharing Data and Supporting Researchers

On March 20th, Adaptive Biotechnologies and Microsoft announced a partnership to map population-wide adaptive immune responses to COVID-19 and will provide these data freely to researchers and public health organizations. To support the research community, NVIDIA has made its genome-sequencing software freely available to researchers working on coronavirus research and Agilent Technologies is featuring a webinar series on how to prepare lab equipment for a potential shutdown as many academic and commercial labs have been having to shut down and move to remote work only as a social distancing measure.

ASHG member Dr. Abraham Palmer shared encouragement on Twitter: “Many of us are used to athletic levels of productivity, but we are running a long race and this is a strong headwind. Don’t beat yourself up.” In a tweet detailing the last day at his lab, Dr. Palmer shared that the lab donated all available PPE to UC San Diego Health.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and we urge you to share stories about others who are stepping in to help. The Society remains committed to supporting the outstanding scientists, physicians, and others, who are part of the human genetics and genomics community and have dedicated their lives to ensuring that people everywhere benefit from genetics and genomics research and medicine.

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