Local collaboration helps researchers everywhere better understand COVID-19 

Editor’s Note: This is Part One in a two-part series. Check back tomorrow for part two.

Through collaborative efforts between local researchers and health care providers, along with community participation and engagement, progress is being made in gathering data that allows scientists to better understand how COVID-19 and variants might impact public health. 

Louisiana Tech, Grambling State, and LSU Health Shreveport (LSUHS) have teamed with local organizations like the GSU’s Foster Johnson Health Center, TechCare, and The Health Hut to provide the opportunity for high quality testing and viral genome sequencing for minority and marginalized communities. 

The group is performing viral genome sequencing using samples from area residents who have tested positive for COVID-19. Genome sequencing reveals the sequence of the nucleotides in a gene, like letters in a word. Nucleotides are organic molecules that form the structural unit building blocks of nucleic acids that make up the genetic code found in RNA or DNA. 

The team is specifically interested in looking across the population at SARS-CoV-2 sequences to identify novel variants in the virus that causes COVID-19 so there can be an efficient response by public health officials. A critical element of this work is community engagement and representation; it is the only way that the team can assess and respond appropriately to changes in the virus. 

“We now have a website along with a dashboard to share with the community what we are doing and what we are seeing,” said Dr. Jamie Newman, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies in the College of Applied and Natural Sciences at Tech. “Foster Johnson Health Center and The Health Hut have been some of our strongest partners in providing COVID-19 samples from informed and consenting patients. That participation is critical to community representation and a more accurate depiction of what’s happening with COVID-19 in our communities.” 

Reliable viral genome sequencing will help accelerate timely analysis and inform response measures to keep countries one step ahead of the virus and counter emerging threats in the future. 

This crucial part of the fight to understand current and future health threats is possible because of The Rockefeller Foundation, which took swift action at the outset of COVID-19 to invest in strategies and partners to address the pandemic in the US and globally. One of those initiatives, which is part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute, is a set of “Regional Accelerators” that participate in applying various methods of data collection and analysis to most appropriately and responsibility assess the status of the virus and the presence of it in communities.  These Regional Accelerator teams work together and with a global network of invested partners, committed to building data sets and analytics needed to detect, mitigate, and prevent pandemics. 

The goal across all of this work that is exemplified by the Louisiana-based collaborators, is to increase the ability of health-care providers to respond quickly when a pandemic threatens and to build trust-based relationships with under-represented communities and the organizations that serve their health needs.  To date these efforts have reached the communities of Grambling, Ruston, and Minden and are quickly spreading to include other communities along the Louisiana I-20 corridor and into areas of Mississippi. 

The project began in late spring. 

“COVID-19 models suggest that we need to sequence 5 percent of all positive cases to detect emerging variants early,” Dr. Paul Kim, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at GSU, said. As Newman is doing at Tech, Kim is leading the efforts at Grambling. Dr. Jeremy P. Kamil at LSUHS serves as the project leader. 

“Before we started in late July 2021, less than 0.5% of positive cases in Lincoln Parish were sequenced compared to roughly 2% in the US,” Kim said. “We’ve increased the rate of sequencing in our Parish by several fold which gives us a better chance to catch the next variant and respond to it before it spreads out of control like Delta..” 

Under the grant, Louisiana Tech faculty and students partner with TechCare, The Health Hut, GSU Foster Johnson Health Center, and most recently, the Minden Family Care Center to collect, record, and analyze data on positive COVID-19 cases in Lincoln Parish. The research information can be found on the website focused on the project. 

“It’s important for LSU Health to be involved in this collaboration because we cannot afford to leave Louisiana and, more specifically, north Louisiana and the I-20 corridor, and other less urban areas ‘off the map’ when it comes to science and technology, especially science and technology that can protect our health,” Kamil said. “And when it comes to coronavirus or other novel respiratory infections, we need to make sure all states and regions are developing the capacity to rapidly detect new viruses and even to figure out which already known viruses are bubbling up and causing a problem. 

“The technology is more accessible than ever, and COVID-19 has taught us that we can save lives by making sure that we generate this data rapidly and that means doing it locally,” he said. “It also means we have to sequence viruses that are causing mild colds in kids, because what causes a mild cold in a child might send an elderly person to the hospital. In the future, we will be able to track infection activity like a weather report. And there’s no reason that students from Grambling or Louisiana Tech should not be able to learn how to take part in this important work.” 

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