Faced with COVID-19, Iceland has genetically identified all of its positive cases since the start of the epidemic. A unique model whose usefulness is reinforced with the appearance of the English and South African variants, at a time when the WHO is calling on the world to urgently strengthen its sequencing capacities.
It’s on the first floor of the deCODE genetics company headquarters in Reykjavik, in a huge gray building, that everything is played out.
For 10 months, scientists in white coats from the laboratory of this Icelandic biopharmaceutical nugget have been working tirelessly on behalf of the health authorities.
Mission: analyze each positive sample of those who are tested in Iceland, both at the borders and within, in order to accurately trace the cases and prevent a particularly problematic case from falling through the cracks.
“The sequencing, itself, takes us relatively little time”, explains, masked, Olafur Thor Magnusson, head of the laboratory.
“About three hours is enough, because we have enough sequenced data to be able to determine which strain of the virus it is.”
The entire process, which can take up to a day and a half of work, has so far identified 463 distinct variants, called “haplotypes” in scientific parlance.
Before the sequencing step, the DNA of each sample is first taken, isolated and then purified using magnetic beads to get rid of excess material.
Then, head to a large bright room with dozens of items of equipment. With a roar reminiscent of corporate photocopiers, small devices resembling scanners work in a crashing din.
These machines, gene sequencers, are used to determine the genome of the coronavirus.
Inside are black boxes called “flow cells», Glass slides that contain the DNA molecules.
The technique has played a major role in Iceland since the start of the epidemic.
“The sequencing of samples is important so that we can follow the state and evolution of the epidemic,” said Minister of Health Svandis Svavarsdottir.
The information obtained forms the basis for decision-making as to what preventive measures are taken, she adds.
If the South African variant has not been imported to date, 41 people have been identified as carriers of the so-called English strain. All were stopped at the borders after tests carried out on travelers, preventing its spread on the island.
For example, DNA identification has made it possible to establish a clear link with a pub in downtown Reykjavik in the majority of infections which caused a new wave in mid-September last, leading to the closure of bars and nightclubs in the capital.
It also brought to light a strain detected a month earlier on two French tourists declared positive when they arrived and accused, wrongly, of being at the origin of the outbreak of contaminations.
All of Iceland’s roughly 6,000 officially reported COVID-19 cases have been sequenced, making the country the world leader in this field.
If a few countries like the United Kingdom, Denmark, Australia or New Zealand sequencing in a significant way, none reaches such a proportion, even if the world statistics are fragmented.
Faced with several problematic variants, the emergency committee of the World Health Organization (WHO) called on the international community on Friday evening to strengthen their sequencing and therefore detection capacities.
Why does little Iceland shine? Genetic research holds no secrets for deCODE, already behind the largest genetic study ever conducted on a population.
For this work on genetic risk factors published in 2015, the sequencing of the complete genome of 2,500 Icelanders and the study of the genetic profile of a third of the country were necessary.
Beside, the analysis of COVID-19 seems to be a piece of cake.
“It is very easy to sequence this viral genome: it is only 30,000 nucleotides, it is nothing”, laughs Kari Stefansson, 71, CEO and founder of the company.
The human genome ordinarily analyzed here contains 3.4 billion pairs of these organic molecules, he explains.
While it has proved invaluable in tracing the circulation of the virus, sequencing has not yet given rise to any major scientific discoveries at deCODE.
“While there are differences with the many mutations, they are not obvious enough for us to understand,” Stefansson admits.