UNH receives grant to perform surveillance for COVID-19 variants in New Hampshire

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Kelley Thomas, professor of molecular, cellular and biomedical sciences and director of the Hubbard Center for Genome Studies, talks with New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Dr. Deborah Birx, U.S. coronavirus response coordinator, in UNH’s state-of-the-art COVID-19 testing lab, which was specifically designed to handle COVID-19 testing.

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire will start genomic testing of positive cases of the COVID-19 virus to help monitor for any variants of concern that may be found in New Hampshire. UNH received a grant of $757,000 from the National Institutes of Health to perform the testing in UNH’s state-of-the-art lab, specifically designed to handle COVID-19 testing, and the Hubbard Center for Genome Studies.

“When someone is tested for COVID-19, the goal is to look for a positive or negative result,” said Kelley Thomas, professor of molecular, cellular and biomedical sciences and director of the Hubbard Center for Genome Studies. “But as the COVID-19 virus continues to mutate over time it is becoming increasingly important, from a public health perspective, to know which variant of the virus a patient may have and its genetic makeup.”

In partnership with the N.H. Public Health Laboratories at the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), UNH scientists will genetically sequence roughly 12,000 stored human specimens previously confirmed by diagnostic tests to contain the virus, as well as any new positive cases that become available. Roughly half of the samples will come from UNH and half from the state. The objective of the project is to determine the genomic sequence of a large majority of the COVID-19 cases identified in infected individuals in the state and to apply that knowledge to better identify any variants of concern, like the recent Delta or UK variants. The information will help public health officials understand how the different variants spread, if they carry similar or different clinical symptoms and how they behave in those who may have already had the virus or have been vaccinated. Large-scale genomic surveillance of the virus will also help provide data that will allow for cross referencing with other metadata like date of infection, location, severity of outbreaks and characteristics in different racial, ethnic, gender and age groups.

“This work will help us be prepared for any future mutations of the COVID-19 virus,” said Thomas. “It’s important to know when the variants evolve and how they infect different people but knowing the genetic makeup will help us prepare for any future variant outbreaks and give us vital information if we need to design a next generation of vaccines.”

According to researchers, there has been a limited number of COVID-19 genomes that have been sequenced in the United States. Those that have been sequenced have primarily been from patients who were already symptomatic and sick with the virus or special cases found through contact tracing. The researchers hope this project will provide much needed historic variant information.

Jeremy Gasowski | UNH Marketing | jeremy.gasowski@unh.edu | 603-862-4465