India to Prepare Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium

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New Delhi (ABC Live India): Globally, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has posed the biggest public health challenge of the century.However, India has been able to contain its spread and keep the mortality low through effective diagnosis, appropriate treatment measures and contact tracing. In order to fully understand the spread and evolution of the SARS CoV-2 virus, and to tackle its future spread sequencing and analyzing the genomic data of this novel corona virus would be required.

New Delhi (ABC Live India): Globally, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has posed the biggest public health challenge of the century.However, India has been able to contain its spread and keep the mortality low through effective diagnosis, appropriate treatment measures and contact tracing. In order to fully understand the spread and evolution of the SARS CoV-2 virus, and to tackle its future spread sequencing and analyzing the genomic data of this novel corona virus would be required. 

The study of accumulated of mutations in the viral genomes will enable us to compare virus samples and viral lineages in order to understand if local outbreaks are caused by transmission of single or multiple viral lineages.

Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences would also allow us to study the evolution of the virus and assess whether these mutations influence transmission, clinical outcomes, severity, or if they may impact interventions such as public health intervention measures and vaccines.

Against this background, the sudden outbreak of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant in the UK requires India to increase viral Genomic surveillance in order to understand the spread of the virus in a rapid and robust manner.

The proposed Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium will help to expand whole genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 virus across the nation, aiding our understanding of how the virus spreads and evolves. Any changes to the genetic code, or mutations, can be observed in the samples. 

The ten (as of now) regional genome sequencing laboratories spread across the country will cater to the nearest states (as detailed in the table below), which will send 5% of the positive samples to these labs for genome sequencing. 

The viral genome sequencing data generated by the eight regional genome sequencing laboratories will be analyzed by the respective centres and sent to the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Delhi for collation and integration. 

The Central Surveillance Unit (CSU) under Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP) at the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) regularly collects data in a decentralized manner from various States/districts.

Such data collected with regard to SARSCov-2, will be used for selecting the representative positive samples from various regions for genome sequencing. 

Further, the data from the genome sequencing laboratories will be analyzed as per the field data trends to study the linkages (if any) between the genomic variants and epidemiological trends. 

This will help to understand super spreader events, outbreaks and strengthen public health interventions across the country to help in breaking the chains of transmission. Linking this data with the IDSP epi data and patient’s symptoms will allow us to better understand the viral infection dynamics, morbidity and mortality trends. 

Further, the data can be linked with host genomics, immunology, clinical outcomes and risk factors for a more comprehensive outlook.

Over the last few weeks, the United Kingdom (UK) has faced a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in South East England, leading to enhanced epidemiological and virological investigations.

Analysis of viral genome sequence data identified that a large proportion of cases belonged to a new single phylogenetic cluster. The new variant is defined by multiple spike protein mutations (deletion 69-70, deletion 144, N501Y, A570D, D614G, P681H, T716I, S982A, D1118H) present as well as mutations in the other genomic regions. 

While it is known and expected that viruses constantly change through mutations leading to the emergence of new variants, preliminary analysis (based on epidemiological and mathematical model) in the UK suggests that this variant is significantly more transmissible than previously circulating variants, with an estimated potential to increase the reproductive number (R) by 0.4 or greater with an estimated increased transmissibility of up to 70%. 

However, there is no experimental evidence or indication at this point of increased infection severity associated with the aforementioned new variant. Further, few cases with the new variant have to date been also reported by Denmark, Netherlands, Australia and, according to media reports, in Belgium.

Also, very recent media report revealed emergence of second variant in UK (contacts with travellers from South Africa) and a third variant in Nigeria suggesting continuous virus evolution.

Objectives of the Indian SARS-CoV -2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG)

The overall aim of the proposed Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium is to monitor the genomic variations in the SARS-CoV-2 on a regular basis through a multi-laboratory network.

This vital research consortium will also assist in developing potential vaccines in the future.

In the present scenario, it will be pertinent that effective genome surveillance is established with the following objectives:

• To ascertain the current status of new variant of SARS-CoV-2 (SARS-CoV-2 VUI 202012/01) in the country

• To establish a sentinel surveillance for early detection of genomic variants with public health implication

• To determine the genomic variants in the unusual events/trends (super-spreader events, high mortality/morbidity trend areas etc.)

Action Plan

• In case the UK variant or any other variant mutation is detected in any sample, the virus will be sent to any of the two notified COVID Virus Repositories at RCB Faridabad or NIV, Pune for isolating the virus and further culturing. This can then be shared as per notified Guidelines for development of assays, which will help in validation of diagnostics and also testing of the vaccines under development. 

The molecular surveillance will be closely linked with the epidemiological surveillance and clinical specimens will also be collected for relevant clinical correlations. The SOPs, which have been developed for the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Sequencing sample collection, deposit and sharing in May, 2020 will be adopted.

• The relevant case details, travel details, of any sample detected with the new UK variant (or any other found to be of significant from public health perspective) will be communicated to NCDC (Director) Nodal Unit. No details shall be revealed before due approval by the competent authority.

• NCDC Nodal Unit will maintain a database of all samples of the new variants (of public health significance). The data will be epidemiologically analysed, interpreted and shared with state/district for investigation, contact tracing and planning response strategies.

• All the genomic sequencing data will be maintained in a National database at two sites, NIBMG, Kalyani and IGIB, New Delhi

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