A collaboration between scientists at Arkansas Children’s Research Institute and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will help the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Arkansas Department of Health understand more about the variants of COVID-19 circulating in the state.
The partnership is expected to increase capacity for genomic sequencing, tracking and analyses of virus samples, officials at UAMS announced Wednesday.
The $770,000 NIH grant will go to the Arkansas Sequencing Consortium (ArkSeq) that includes UAMS, Arkansas Children’s, Baptist Health and ADH. The consortium will provide sources for samples from across the state to be used for sequencing COVID-19 variants. ACRI will provide an additional $200,000, in part from Arkansas Biosciences Institute funds, to expand sequencing capacity.
ACRI’s NIH-funded Center for Translational Pediatric Research (CTPR) and UAMS’ IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) will lead the collaborative efforts. The grant is awarded to Dr. Alan Tackett, CTPR director, professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and deputy director for the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, and Dr. Josh Kennedy, associate professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics, Division of Allergy and Immunology, is the project leader.
Kennedy said the work will help the state understand which variants of COVID-19 are present in Arkansas and could even help identify new variants. Data ranging from demographics to collection dates, symptoms and vaccination status will all be essential to the project, which will result in actionable data provided to the CDC and ADH.
“The big picture information that emerges from this type of detail can equip the healthcare community to respond more quickly, ultimately saving more lives and preventing some serious complications,” Kennedy said. “Combining the expertise and resources of several Arkansas health leaders will mean we help more people faster.”
State-of-the-art, next generation sequencing platforms will allow the researchers to sequence COVID-19 positive samples from the ArkSeq Consortium over the next year, according to a press release. Findings from this sustainable SARS CoV-2 genomic surveillance data and analyses will be shared with state of Arkansas to improve ongoing pandemic response and preparedness.
“This approach will allow us to answer crucial research questions,” Kennedy said. “What are the relative levels of the different variants in Arkansas? How does this change over time? Are there specific variants of concern that are more commonly identified in vaccinated people? We hope to come away with answers to these and so much more.”
Arkansas has sequenced fewer than 1,000 COVID-19 samples, a total of 0.28 percent of all cases. It ranks 48th nationally for total samples sequenced. The scientists expect to yield eight times more sequences from Arkansas for national databases, also producing additional samples for future study.