The GHA will soon be carrying out whole genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV 2 virus that causes COVID-19.
The service will be located at the GHA’s COVID Laboratory currently located at the University of Gibraltar which was set up to undertake COVID screening tests.
The lab is already staffed by senior scientists with extensive Molecular Biology Experience. Dr Zoe Vincent-Mistiaen MA (Oxon) PhD is the lead PCR Molecular Biology Scientist at Covid Laboratory, and Ms Charlotte Gillborn-Jones MSc LIBMS Biomedical Scientist in Microbiology at SBH and Dr Martyn Bell BSc D.Phil (Oxon) MBChB a Medical Doctor from St Bernard’s Hospital and has extensive experience in genetic sequencing academic research at Oxford University, and has been temporarily seconded to the COVID laboratory to set up this service.
The project, led by Dr Nick Cortes, GHA Consultant Medical Microbiologist & Dr Daniel Cassaglia Consultant Paediatrician and clinical lead for the COVID laboratory, has over the last few weeks assembled an expert scientific team and procured highly specialised sequencing equipment and chemical reagents. The sequencing work, consisting of initial validation before formal processing commences, has started this week. Dr Zoe Vincent-Mistiaen will also be attending the Francis Crick Institute in London next week for hands-on experience and advanced technical advice on the sequencing process.
Dr Nick Cortes, said: “The Gibraltar COVID Lab are currently in the process of enrolling as a member of a UK genome sequencing consortium (COG-UK) based at Cambridge University. The team will be sharing all the virus sequences obtained in Gibraltar with the consortium and in that way contribute to the world-wide knowledge of covid variants and patterns of transmission.” (https://www.cogconsortium.uk/cog-uk/about-us/).
Dr Cassaglia, said: “Until now, the GHA have sent a number of positive samples to Public Health England reference laboratories in the UK. The results have taken up to 2 months to be reported due to a backlog caused by the large number of sequences being carried out in the UK. The local team aims to sequence all new positive cases in Gibraltar within 72 hours of a positive test so that the exact SARS-CoV-2 viral lineage causing the COVID-19 infection can be identified early on.”
The lineage information will be important to help inform public health interventions. New mutations, variants and lineages come and go over time, and using genomic sequencing we can monitor for the minor fraction of variants that might behave differently when infecting people or encountering people with immune responses primed by vaccination or previous infection.
Dr Nick Cortes, added: “Knowing which variants are circulating in Gibraltar in real time will give us an important advantage in reducing the risk and managing any future COVID-19 outbreaks.”
Minister Sacramento, said: “We are privileged to be able to have this service in such a small community, another example of Gibraltar punching well above its weight in the world and I am grateful to Dr Cassaglia and Dr Cortes who have been instrumental in making this a reality for Gibraltar.
Thanks to this further innovation, the GHA can gain a better understanding of the epidemiology, transmissibility and origin of the different variants affecting us in Gibraltar. It will also help with contact tracing and allow us to quickly suppress any variants of concern which may include those that are known to be less susceptible to current vaccines.