Live webinar held to discuss UAE’s pioneering study on genetic sequencing of COVID-19 virus

DUBAI, Leading researchers who conducted the UAE’s pioneering study on the genomics of the virus causing COVID-19 – known as SARS-CoV-2 – gathered at a live webinar hosted by the Office of Advanced Sciences to answer the public’s questions on genetic sequencing and discuss the main findings and implications of the study.

The UAE recently announced the full genetic sequencing of the COVID-19 virus found in patients who had the disease in the country. The study used findings from 49 of the earliest confirmed patients in the UAE out of whom full genetic sequencing was completed in 25 patients.

The groundbreaking study identified several travel-related introductions of the virus from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East during the early part of the pandemic and mapped these early viral strains to an evolving global ‘family tree’ of the novel coronavirus. The majority of patients had no symptoms or only mild symptoms. The study also identified 70 mutations in the sequenced samples, 17 of which were not reported previously.

The live webinar brought together five of the study’s authors along with leading scientists and COVID-19 experts. Participants included Professor Alawi Alsheikh-Ali, the official spokesperson for the Advanced Sciences sector in the UAE, member of the Emirates Scientist Council and Provost of MBRU; Dr. Ahmad Abou Tayoun, Associate Professor of Genetics at MBRU and Director of the Genomics Centre at Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital; Dr. Tom Loney, Associate Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology at MBRU; Dr. Abdulmajeed Saif AlKhajeh, Consultant, Medical Education and Research Department at Dubai Health Authority; and Dr. Hamda Hassan Khansaheb, Head of Research Section, Medical Education and Research Department at Dubai Health Authority; The webinar provided an opportunity for the researchers to shed light on important areas of public interest related to the SARS-CoV-2 study, namely the implications of different mutations of the virus on its transmission, severity of symptoms for those infected, and vaccine development.

Panelists also clarified some misperceptions and social media rumors on the varying degrees of strength of the mutations of the virus. They explained how mutations are a natural phenomenon of the virus and do not necessarily result in a significant change in the ability of the virus to cause disease. This is consistent with the latest evidence related to the COVID-19 virus. Using the analogy of how the single random change of a letter in a book will not alter its story, the scientists argued that these versions of the virus are so genetically similar that any changes to date do not appear to alter viral strength, or its rates of transmission.

The findings of the study are invaluable contributions from the UAE to the global scientific community. The resulting sequencing data have been shared on different databases including the global open-source COVID-19 genome database Nexstrain, which uses the genetic data to help scientists globally trace the spread of outbreaks. In addition, it helps scientists understand the virus and its changes, contributing to the development of vaccinations and drugs. The database uses the data of SARS-CoV-2 strains gathered from scientists around the world as markers of transmission to determine the evolution of spatial spread, introduction timings, and epidemic growth rate. The novel mutations revealed by the UAE’s study provide highly significant inputs to this global scientific project.

The study also represents an important example of the ongoing national efforts of the UAE for collaborative, interdisciplinary study across several institutions and public health authorities throughout the country and further demonstrates the crucial role of scientific investigation to prevent outbreak, develop vaccination, and create strategies of containment in the fight against COVID-19.

Source: Emirates News Agency