Later this month Teagasc, the agriculture and food authority, will focus its most high-tech facilities on spearheading a national drive by experts to identify the strains of Covid-19 that are found in Ireland and help pinpoint clusters in the event of a second wave of the virus.
“We have a large DNA sequencing facility at Teagasc, the largest such research facility in the country.
“This superb facility is normally used for studies related to agriculture, food and human health, but in recent months we’ve been preparing to use it to assist colleagues in hospitals, universities and other institutions around Ireland, to help determine the genetic makeup of the coronavirus strains found in Ireland,” explains Professor Paul Cotter, Head of Food BioSciences at Teagasc, who is working on this project with a team of eight.
The National Coronavirus Sequencing Consortium will ‘read’ the RNA sequence of viruses isolated from samples of patients who have lab-confirmed infections of Covid-19 and make the sequence information freely available for analysis.
“Normally when a patient has a test done, he or she learns if the result is positive or negative.
“What the consortium will do is use the DNA sequencing facilities to gain more information from those positive tests,” Prof Cotter explains.
Approval from national ethics regulatory bodies has enabled the consortium to use this unused leftover material to determine the sequence of the virus genomes for this study.
Anyone who may have provided a sample for Covid testing can obtain more information on the scientific basis of the work, and how their samples are being used can be found on the Teagasc website, he explained.
“Basically we will take the samples that are positive and carry out a deeper analysis to determine the identity of the specific strain that the person was infected with.
“The purpose of this is that through identifying the strains circulating throughout Ireland we can help to determine their origin — and the different routes of entry of the virus into this country.
“The other benefit of the work of the consortium is that if there is a second wave of infection, we can help with the efforts to identify clusters that have a common source.
Essentially, being able to determine the genetic makeup of the viruses circulating in Ireland will also support efforts to respond to clusters of infections as they arise — and minimise the spread of the virus. “We have been working on preparing for this since April in terms of putting the correct procedures in place and getting approval, with a view to starting the work shortly,” he said, adding that he expected DNA sequencing to begin in the next few weeks.