A technician prepares COVID-19 coronavirus patient samples for testing at a laboratory in New York's Long Island.
A technician prepares COVID-19 coronavirus patient samples for testing at a laboratory. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: Dubai’s COVID-19 Command and Control Centre (CCC) on Wednesday announced the UAE’s first full genome sequencing of the COVID-19 virus.

The sequencing helps understanding how the virus spreads, which can also inform measures to control the outbreak.

The successful sequencing of the virus from a patient in Dubai was performed by researchers at the Mohammad Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences (MBRU).

The CCC was established by His Highness Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of The Executive Council, to enhance collaboration across the healthcare sector and ensure alignment with the Dubai government’s efforts to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak.

NAT Dr. Amer Sharif-1586951544872
Dr Amer Sharif Image Credit: Supplied

Dr Amer Sharif, vice-chancellor of MBRU and head of the CCC, said: “Scientific research is a critical resource to inform the centre’s strategies and actions against this virus. We are fortunate to have academic institutions that can join other sectors in Dubai in the fight against COVID-19.”

How sequencing helps

Genome sequencing has increasingly become an important tool for studying disease outbreaks. The genome of the virus causing COVID-19 (known as SARS-CoV-2) consists of 30,000 genetic bases or letters. Many countries have started reporting genomic sequences of the virus from patient samples. As a virus spreads and continues to reproduce, small changes in its genetic material take place. Recent studies on the virus causing COVID-19 show that these genetic changes, known as mutations, occur every two weeks on average. By studying the genetic sequence of the virus and the minor changes over time from many patients, scientists can get a better understanding of how the virus spreads, which can also inform measures to control the outbreak.

More samples planned

NAT Prof. Alawi Alsheikh-Ali-1586951546322
Professor Alawi Al Shaikh Ali Image Credit: Supplied

Professor Alawi Al Shaikh-Ali, MBRU’s Provost, Member of the Emirates Scientist Council and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Group for the CCC, said: “This development highlights the critical role of science and the scientific community in enhancing our capacity to fight emerging diseases. It is an important first step of a larger study in collaboration with colleagues from Dubai Health Authority and the Al Jalila Children’s Genomic Centre. We aim to fully sequence viral samples from 240 patients with COVID-19 across various age groups and at different time points of this pandemic. We will also collect information on the severity of disease in our patients which can help us understand if different strains of the virus are associated with different levels of disease severity.”

Tracking transmission

Dr Ahmad Abou Tayoun, Associate Professor of Genetics at MBRU and Director of the Genomics Centre at Al Jalila Children’s, said: “This is a specific example of how this information can help trace the origin of infection in this specific patient from the UAE, and can tell us a lot about viral transmission in the country. Moreover, given Dubai’s role and geographic position as a bridge between the East and the West, this information will also help in understanding how the pandemic has been spreading globally.”

The sequencing study is led by an experienced research team from MBRU, DHA, AJCH and other national universities. The team includes experts in virology, epidemiology, public health, genetics, and clinical research. The team is also working on other research questions related to COVID-19 and will continue to build collaborations with research institutions in the UAE and abroad.