AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — The Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) along with the Texas Tech Institute for Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) said they are addressing COVID-19 treatments for multiple strains of the virus with the process of gene sequencing.

TTUHSC stated that gene sequencing is a process used by scientists to determine the “sequential order of the four building blocks that comprise a strand of DNA. Those building blocks, known as nucleotides, include adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine. Millions and billions of these nucleotides are linked together in each of us, giving us our unique genome that houses all of the genetic information that makes us tick.”

TTUHSC added that errors can occur when a copy of an organism’s genome is produced, which means nucleotides are swapped or altered and therefore will modify genes and affect the function of the genome copy. In SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, TTUHSC explained that the severity of its infections or its ability to evade vaccines and other potential treatments can be altered.

Sharilyn Almodvar, Ph.D., an investigator for the Department of Immunology and Molecular Microbiology at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) School of Medicine, said the methods used to conduct sequencing can be adapted to meet almost any situation, which means its potential uses are virtually endless.

“In the specific case of the COVID-19 pandemic, gene sequencing is the tool that gets us to know the virus that we are fighting,” Almodvar said. “Every single time the virus finds a host to replicate, the new viruses appear with mutations. Viral gene sequencing allows us to identify those mutations, how fast they propagate, where those mutations are spread in terms of geographical location, and what time of the year this is happening. All of that is key to what we call virus surveillance.”

Almodvar explained the importance of tracking virus mutations as they can eventually improve the odds of the virus replicating in the next person.

“This is how we know the enemy that we’re fighting,” Almodvar added. “Coronaviruses have been around for a long time, but this pandemic has been different in many ways.”

According to TTUHSC, Steven L. Berk, M.D., TTUHSC School of Medicine, said that the TIEHH began a genomic sequencing program for classifying variants of the SARS-COV-2 virus, with the program helping public officials to understand the progression and impact of the virus on local communities.

“While gene sequencing is done by many laboratories around the state, country and world, it is important to know the COVID-19 variants that are circulating in West Texas,” Berk explained. “The TIEHH laboratory is providing that information to physicians, hospitals and public health officials.”

Afzal A. Siddiqui, Ph.D., director of TTUHSC’s Center for Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases, said that gene sequencing can identify the strain and determine whether or not new public measures or previous guidelines will be necessary.

“Gene sequencing will warn us of any variants that might evade the immune system of vaccinated individuals,” Siddiqui said. “It will also help us track any new strains from one place to another and provide clues to how strains are spreading among populations.”

The TIEHH lab for gene sequencing continues to provide important tools to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in West Texas, TTUHSC said.

“TTUHSC faculty and staff are facilitating the collection and transport of samples from affiliated hospitals to TIEHH in a concerted effort to be prepared for the next COVID-19 surge,” Berk added.

Almodvar said that it is important to investigate the connection between the viral identity of new variants and the damage it can cause to an individual.

“Cases are low now, but now more than ever we should not drop the ball,” Almodvar emphasized. “We should remain conscientious about what we can do to prevent further infections, and therefore new viral genetic mutations. I think that’s how sequencing is key at this point. Now that we seem to see the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, COVID-19 sequencing keeps our eyes open in case new concerning variants come up and increases our overall pandemic preparedness.”