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Portland team studies COVID-19 mutations with hopes of identifying variants early

The researchers use their data to determine whether there are specific outbreaks in a particular region, and how the virus could mutate.

PORTLAND, Ore. — A team of researchers in Portland is tracking how COVID-19 is changing and spreading. Providence Medical Center's Molecular Genomics Laboratory is at the forefront of this research.

“One of the lynchpins of our pandemic response right now is identifying how the coronavirus is changing and being proactive in preventing those changes,” said Dr. Brian Piening, a cancer geneticist.

Piening normally sequences cancer tumors to help determine the best treatment options for patients. But when the pandemic hit, he started monitoring the coronavirus.

“I remember getting a lot of questions, 'Why are you doing this? What are these variants you're looking for?' Now, I don't get those questions anymore,” he said.

Piening and his team do what’s called “genomic surveillance,” using the same equipment they would use to study human genomes: a high-capacity genome sequencing machine. In the last year, his lab has sequenced more than 700 positive COVID-19 cases.

“COVID genomes are really small," Piening said. "We can sequence thousands in a matter of hours on these big instruments, which is pretty cool.” 

The researchers use their data to determine whether there are specific outbreaks in a particular region, and how the virus could mutate. These variants might make vaccines less effective, so the research is crucial in understanding how to fight the virus.

“What keeps me up at night is not knowing where the coronavirus is going," said Piening. "What the variants look like a month from now, or a couple months from now. If we find them early, we could potentially isolate and respond."

Piening said his team only studies a small percentage of positive COVID-19 cases, so it’s hard to say how prevalent a particular variant is. He hopes to increase the amount of positive COVID-19 cases they’re studying in the future.