UNC Charlotte lab helps to identify possible COVID-19 variants


CHARLOTTE (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) — The surge of data coming in about the various COVID-19 variants might have you wondering how researchers track it all.

Inside the bioinformatics building at UNCC, students and professors are hard at work determining COVID-19 variants.

“We’re kind of unique because we don’t have a medical school here but we do have this lab,” said UNCC Bioinformatics professor Cynthia Gibas.

The process seems convoluted, but one student offered a simple explanation, “It’s like baking a cake. We have all these ingredients that we’re putting into a tube.”

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The lab gets 100-200 positive COVID-19 samples a week from StarMed. Each one has its own set of genes.

“You can tell an individual person from just a few markers in their genome,” Gibas said. “Viruses are the same way. It’s just a few changes in their genome and you can say, ‘this is a Delta variant.’”

Professors and students add so-called ingredients to the sample so it’s large enough to test its genetic makeup.

“It’s a molecular Xerox machine,” said associate professor Jessica Schlueter. “There’s not enough RNA for us to directly sequence SARS-CoV-2, so we use this process of a molecular Xerox machine to make lots of copies of the COVID genome so we can easily sequence it.”

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Roughly 100 samples containing 8,000 pores get sequenced to read the RNA. Computer software then reveals the variant.

Right now, most of the Charlotte-area samples are coming back as the Delta variant, providing a clearer picture of COVID-19 here locally.

“We’re able to partner with the Department of Public Health to determine provide some information about what’s going on in Charlotte, specifically, that they aren’t getting from these other sources,” Gibas said.

UNCC also contributes data to the international COVID-19 monitoring database. Professors say if they sequence 5-10 percent of the samples out there, that’ll give them a pretty good picture of what’s happening locally.

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