Tracking the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia using genomics

Researchers from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology have been using genome sequencing to help limit the spread of the virus.

The research used genome sequencing to identify genetic mutations in 75 per cent of SARS-CoV-2 cases in Victoria. From this, researchers have been able to trace clusters and transmission networks, which has been useful in understanding how the virus has been spreading in Victoria.

The research was carried out by a dedicated SARS-CoV-2 multidisciplinary genomic response team, a collaboration between the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL), and the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory (MDU-PHL), which is based in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute).

“Our sequencing showed that Victoria’s cases were representative of the global diversity of SARS-CoV-2. Consistent with epidemiological findings, we found that most of Victoria’s cases were imported with limited onward transmission,” said Professor Ben Howden, Director of the MDU-PHL and a Laboratory Head in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

“Sequencing allowed us to identify large clusters from social venues, healthcare facilities and cruise ships, and importantly see how enforced social restrictions impacted transmission.

“Finally, we are able to demonstrate how the application of genomics will become critically important to rapidly identify SARS-CoV-2 transmission chains as social restrictions ease globally.”

Whole genome sequencing of pathogens in real time is an important tool in managing public health responses to infectious disease outbreaks.

According Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Professor Brett Sutton, the genomic sequencing carried out by the team has had a significant positive impact on Victoria’s response to the virus.

“Genomic sequencing is an incredibly powerful tool for our disease detectives to identify SARS-CoV-2 cases and clusters, which will be an ongoing challenge in Victoria and Australia,” Professor Sutton said.

This research is currently undergoing the peer review process. A preprint version of the article is available here.