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Focused efforts to sequence for COVID-19 ramp up in Oklahoma through new Pandemic Center

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence is set to begin sequencing COVID-19 and its variants as multiple new strains develop across the globe

STILLWATER, OKLA. — The Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence (OPCIE) announced today that genome sequencing capabilities for COVID-19 will be up and running this week.

“We are excited to get our sequencing capability fully operational, as COVID-19 variants are spreading rapidly throughout our global communities,” said Dr. Michael Kayser, director of the OPCIE and Public Health Lab. “This is exactly the type of critical research and development endeavor this center was established to do to improve our overall health response and outcomes. The United States is severely behind the global curve in its capabilities to sequence for the coronavirus, but with the OPCIE, Oklahoma is able to perform the necessary research that will set the standard for all of us to begin prioritizing the investment in our current and future public health responses.”

Through the CDC’s enhanced surveillance program, state epidemiologists confirmed the presence of the P.1 and B.1 1.7 variants in Oklahoma as of mid-February, and estimate that there are likely a wide range of strains in the state even if they have not yet been confirmed.

With expanded sequencing capabilities at the OPCIE, Oklahoma will be able to identify and track these strains, as well as eventually predict and prevent new strains from spreading. This will complement and enhance the sequencing research already being done in the state by the University of Oklahoma.

The technology and equipment to perform sequencing at the new lab in Stillwater is operational and validated, and is undergoing testing to ensure all systems are performing accurately and efficiently. After this trial period, the sequencing capabilities will be officially operational.

Genome sequencing of viruses is a process that reveals the “sequence” of nucleotides in a gene that is part of a virus’ DNA, and it is a critical piece of anticipating viral mutations. By identifying the genetic structure and comparing samples, researchers can identify variations and ultimately improve the public health response to them.

“Sequencing viruses is crucial to our understanding of a disease and ability to mount a response to it,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Jared Taylor. “Through this research, we are able to identify and prepare for mutations and potential spread of endemic diseases in our communities. A good example of this is the common flu, which we sequence for each year in order to estimate which variants will be most common. This ultimately influences our vaccine development process and treatment efforts to build widespread immunity among our populations.”

Sequencing is one of the OPCIE’s core research and development capabilities that will ultimately help inform the nation’s public health responses.

The OPCIE officially launched with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in January and is set to be fully operational within the month of March. The center is the first healthcare and research center of its kind in the nation focused on improving public health infrastructure and response.