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Genome Sequencing Assists Research at Naval Health Research Center

Image of Lab technicians doing genome research. Technicians at the Naval Health Research Center test blood samples for antibodies. The effort is part of the DOD SARS-CoV-2 Whole Genome Sequencing Action Plan, which brings together laboratories to conduct whole genome sequencing across the Military Health System in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Credit: NHRC John Marciano)

Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment in a 7-part series that highlights the work of the Military Health System laboratories and the technicians who worked to identify COVID-19 variants using special sequencing technology.

The staff at Naval Health Research Center (NHRC) added whole genome sequencing capability to their surveillance program. During the COVID-19 pandemic, NHRC brought on scientists and lab technicians to support this work and bioinformatics, which enriched their data collection and analysis capabilities.

“Coordination was a team effort. Lab technicians worked together to test samples, identify candidates for WGS, and ultimately perform the sequencing reactions. This data was handed off to NHRC scientists for process and analysis,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michelle H. Lane, who holds a doctorate in biomedical science and is the director of operational infectious diseases at NHRC.

The U.S. Navy laboratory has access to a number of unique samples from naval vessels, U.S. and Mexico border populations, Department of Defense (DOD) beneficiaries, as well as recruits and trainees across all DOD services. These samples have been important to the DOD across multiple areas of responsibilities during the pandemic. NHRC continues to provide critical sequencing and epidemiological support for the COVID-19 efforts and have even developed a new serological quantitative assay that enables the differentiation between the immune response generated by natural infection compared to immunity generated through vaccination. Serology, in conjunction with molecular, sequencing, and bioinformatics data, will collectively inform a better understanding about vaccine efficacy metrics.

The Armed Forces Health Surveillance Division Global Emerging Infections Surveillance’s Next Generation Sequencing and Bioinformatics Consortium supported their efforts.

“In addition to the financial support, the consortium has shared knowledge and offered support in troubleshooting new protocols and procedures. These resources were critical in initiating the new WGS program,” said Lane.

She believes that this work is important to military and local civilian populations, adding, “Knowledge of diseases circulating in any population, military or civilian, is critical to keeping that population healthy. WGS offers a more precise, close-up look at these diseases and allows doctors and scientists to monitor disease evolution at a molecular level. All of this information contributes to more precise diagnoses and better treatment decisions.”

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