Rush University Medical Center is opening an advanced molecular laboratory that will examine covid-19 samples from across the city to detect new strains of SARS-CoV-2 for the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH).
CDPH awarded Rush a $3.5 million contract to create the Regional Innovative Public Health Laboratory (RIPHL) that will work in partnership with the CDPH and other local academic medical centers to detect new strains and determine which strains of the virus are spreading the fastest and where they are spreading. Building coordinated, regional capacity for this type of advanced molecular laboratory has been a top priority for the CDPH.
Rush will collect covid-19 positive specimens from hospitals across the city and use molecular biology tools such as whole genome sequencing to answer questions that CDPH wants addressed, according to Mary Hayden, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and director of the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory at Rush University Medical Center.
“For example, if the city wants to understand some COVID-19 hot spots, the genomic information can help to identify chains of transmission so that public health resources can be used most effectively to break the chain,” Hayden says.
National Effort to Surveil Covid-19
With RIPHL, Rush and CDPH join a national effort to step up surveillance of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes covid-19, and detect any variants of the virus and identify genetic changes in these variants. New strains, such as those found in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, are now spreading to other places, including the United States. The UK strain was first reported in Chicago in mid-January.
“These few new strains are not going to be the end of it, so we need to know more than just whether people have the virus. We also need to know which strain they are carrying,” says Stefan Green, PhD, director of the Genomics and Microbiome Core Facility at Rush. “SARS-CoV-2 is mutating, though not at an especially rapid rate compared to other viruses, such as influenza.”
Genomic sequencing can answer a number of questions. It can detect which strains of covid-19 are circulating in Chicago, it can monitor the spread in certain neighborhoods or within certain populations.
“There’s also interest in whether people who become ill with covid for a second time are infected with a new strain of the virus or the same strain as the first infection, and whether it is a relapse and the infection never really went away,” Green says.
Another question of interest is whether variants will “escape” the immunity provided by the COVID vaccines.
“While the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines have been shown to be very effective, one focus of RIPHL will be to sequence viruses from vaccinated persons who develop covid, to monitor whether certain variants are more likely to cause infection after vaccination,” Hayden adds.
The contract was awarded in December, and the lab is expected to be fully operational by March. The CDPH, which is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and State of Illinois to contribute to national surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 strains, says the lab partnership will increase public health surveillance of possible covid-19 variants.
Rush and CDPH have partnered on other public health initiatives, including a comprehensive data resource hub that centralizes hospital information. Launched in December, the big data analytics tool is designed to aid in the fight against covid-19 and other public health issues.1
1. Rush University. Chicago Launches New Data Analytics Tool in Fight Against Covid-19. December 4, 2020. Available at: https://www.rushu.rush.edu/news/chicago-launches-new-data-analytics-tool-fight-against-covid-19. Accessed February 11, 2021.
Featured image: Mary Hayden, MD, (right) chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and director of the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory at Rush University Medical Center, is co-principal investigator on the contract with Stefan Green, PhD, director of the Genomics and Microbiome Core Facility at Rush.