A National Institutes of Health-funded collaboration between scientists at Arkansas Children’s Research Institute and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences will help the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Arkansas Department of Health understand more about the variants of COVID-19 circulating in the state by increasing capacity for genomic sequencing, tracking and analyses of virus samples.
The $770,000 NIH grant, announced Wednesday (July 7), will be devoted to the powerful collaboration between UAMS, Arkansas Children’s, Baptist Health and ADH. The “Arkansas Sequencing (ArkSeq) Consortium” will be a source for samples from across the state to be used for sequencing COVID-19 variants. ACRI will provide an additional $200,000, in part from Arkansas Biosciences Institute funds, to expand sequencing capacity.
The grant is awarded to Dr. Alan Tackett, professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and deputy director for the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, and Dr. Josh Kennedy, associate professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics, Division of Allergy and Immunology, is the project leader.
Kennedy said the work will help the state understand which variants of COVID-19 are present in Arkansas and could even help identify new variants. Data ranging from demographics to collection dates, symptoms and vaccination status will all be essential to the project, which will result in actionable data provided to the CDC and ADH.
“The big picture information that emerges from this type of detail can equip the healthcare community to respond more quickly, ultimately saving more lives and preventing some serious complications,” Kennedy said. “Combining the expertise and resources of several Arkansas health leaders will mean we help more people faster.”
Findings from this sustainable SARS CoV-2 genomic surveillance data and analyses will be shared with state of Arkansas to improve ongoing pandemic response and preparedness.
“This approach will allow us to answer crucial research questions,” Kennedy said. “What are the relative levels of the different variants in Arkansas? How does this change over time? Are there specific variants of concern that are more commonly identified in vaccinated people? We hope to come away with answers to these and so much more.”
Today, Arkansas has sequenced fewer than 1,000 COVID-19 samples – a total of only 0.28% of all cases. That ranks the state 48th nationally for total samples sequenced. The scientists expect to yield eight times more sequences from Arkansas for national databases, also producing additional samples for future study.
Crucial bioinformatics support for the project will be provided by Drs. Stephanie Byrum, assistant professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and David Ussery, professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biomedical Informatics.