The Director of the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) at the University of Ghana, Prof. Gordon Awandare, has said the critical data scientists at the university obtained about the genetic composition of COVID-19 is a major boost to global efforts to find a vaccine for the disease.
He said the breakthrough would feed into the global database on sequences for COVID-19 and enhance the chances of getting a reliable vaccine for the disease that is having a toll on many countries around the world.
Scientists at the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (NMIMR) and the WACCBIP, last Saturday, made history when they succeeded in sequencing the whole genomes of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the coronavirus pandemic.
The historic feat was achieved after the scientists obtained data from viral strains in 15 of the confirmed cases in the country.
Until that feat, scientist at those institutions could only sequence bits and pieces of the DNA of pathogens which meant that they could not get comprehensive data on the genomes of pathogenic organisms.
Boost to COVID-19 fight
Speaking to the Daily Graphic yesterday Prof. Awandare said: “Scientists in other countries have already got vaccines that we all hope will work on COVID-19 so the information we have obtained in Ghana will help in that direction. There is a database in which global sequences are deposited and now we have added sequences from Ghana to that database.”
“This will help those who are working on the vaccines to know what is going on in Ghana in terms of the genetic nature of the virus.This is a major boost to the search for COVID-19 vaccine because as more and more countries are able to do this, it means that globally there is more information about the virus,” he added.
Prof. Awandare added that the feat that had been achieved by the scientists had empowered them with more information to deal with the virus at the local level even as efforts were made to tackle it globally.
“The achievement gives us another powerful tool in our kit list because if you are going for a battle and you have a lot of weapons to deploy, it helps a lot. The research findings mean that scientists in the country have added a powerful weapon that they can deploy to respond appropriately to COVID-19,” he said.
Throwing some light on the research, he said although NMIMR and WACCBIP had been doing some sequencing of the DNA of pathogens, it had been done in bits and pieces, unlike what had been done this time.
“Prior to this achievement, we could find pieces of information of pathogens but now, in one go, we have obtained all the information about the totality of the pathogen rather than getting pieces of it,” he said.
Prof. Awandare indicated that as tedious as the task was, the researchers were able to execute the project because of the capacity and expertise the NMIMR and WACCBIP had built over time.
“The research was very involving and took us several weeks from the time COViD-19 hit Ghana until we were able to make this breakthrough. It challenged our minds; it challenged our capacity in terms of equipment and facilities and the reagents we have. We had to try different kinds of reagents and combine ideas to be able to do this,” he said.
He observed that the success chalked up by the scientists was a strong signal that there was the urgent need for investment in scientific research to be prioritised and given the right funding to promote national development.
Prof. Awandare said investment in research would boost the capacity of local institutions and enhance the expertise of scientists to respond to health challenges in real time.
He noted that more work remained to be done in the search for antidotes to COVID-19 for which reason the research institutions and scientists needed more support to deal with the challenge.
“Pathogens are very intelligent organisms because when you are trying to control them, they try to find ways around them by changing their genetic makeup. We have to keep tracking them to ensure that if they try to change, we will know. If we do not have the capacity, the pathogens will be changing and we will not know and still be doing the same things,” he said.
To put the research institutions in a better position to track the virus, he called on the government to facilitate how to get reagents into the country.
He also underscored the need for the country to take long-term measures to lay a solid foundation for scientific research.
In that regard, he called on Parliament to prioritise the passage of the Research and Innovation Bill, currently before the House, to give legal backing to research and innovation.
Touching on the measures the government had taken to stem the tide in the fight against COVID-19, he said the restrictions on movement and banning of public gatherings had achieved considerable results.
He, however, stressed that there was the need to tighten the knot on the enforcement of the restrictions for more positive outcomes.
“Many people are not complying with the restrictions and social distancing protocols. We must not be allowing people to gather at all, so all places of social activity must be locked up and anything that allows people to gather should be banned and thoroughly enforced,” he said.
On mass testing for COVID-19, he said the country had done well in doing some kind of mass testing for over 37,000 samples.
He noted, however, that more circumspection was required to ensure that further testing was targeted to avoid running out of test kits when it was most needed.
Scientists at the University of Ghana last Saturday announced that they had obtained critical data about the genetic composition of the COVID-19 strains in Ghana.
They said the data was obtained from viral strains in 15 of the confirmed cases in the country and would help scientists gain a comprehensive understanding of the variations of the virus that is present in the country.
A statement issued by the University’s Public Affairs Directorate said the feat was attained by scientists at NMIMR and the WACCBIP.
It said the success achieved was a significant milestone in Ghana’s response to the pandemic, as it would strengthen surveillance.
According to the statement, the scientists successfully sequenced genomes of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the global COVID-19 pandemic.
It explained that genome sequencing allowed for the compilation of the most comprehensive information about an organism‘s genetic makeup.
Using advanced next generation sequencing methods, scientists are able to track and compare viral mutations to understand the origins of imported strains and to discover if any novel strains are emerging locally.
The statement explained that samples analysed were taken from two travellers who arrived in Ghana from the UK, one from Norway, one from Hungary, one from India, and another, who arrived from the United States through the United Arab Emirates.
Nine samples were taken from individuals who had no travel history, who are believed to have acquired the infection locally.