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Ireland's coronavirus strains: Sequencing identifies one linked to Wuhan but most similar to European strains

Sequencing work will now focus on clusters in the community.

GENOME SEQUENCING WORK on Ireland’s coronavirus cases has found most strains appear to be similar to those spreading through Europe.

Now laboratory technicians at UCD are planning to use sequencing to examine clusters of infection in the community. According to the latest figures from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) there are now 118 clusters in the Republic of Ireland. 

Health officials have said that clusters here generally involve fewer than five people, but they are still a concern, particularly because 24 of these clusters were reported in nursing home settings. 

Viral genome sequencing is an analysis that helps researchers to learn more about the virus such as how it is mutating and how it spreads. It can also assist in the development of a vaccine.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Dr Cillian De Gascun, who is chair of the HSE’s coronavirus expert advisory group and director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory at UCD, said that as well as the ongoing testing of samples, the lab has been doing some sequencing work to learn about the strains of Covid-19 in Ireland.

“One of the initial cases that we looked at, the sequence was very similar to the reference strain in Wuhan in China,” he explained.

“But the majority of the other sequences that we’ve looked at have been more similar to European strains. Initially we were looking at those strains to see where the virus may have been imported from.

Initially we generated whole genomes of the virus and what we want to do now is take smaller segments, look at a larger proportion of the population and maybe see if we can do some work around transmission clusters or networks of transmission within the country. We haven’t done that work yet.

According to the latest figures yesterday evening, there are now 3,447 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Ireland and 85 people who had the virus have died. The median age of deaths in Ireland is 82. 

There have been some suggestions that the strain of this virus in countries like Italy and Spain is more aggressive and that this may be the more prevalent strain in Ireland, but De Gascun said it is “too early to say”.

“If you look at the number of cases around the world – 700,000 or thereabouts at this time – the number of sequences that have been shared through public networks is, I think, fewer than 1,000.

Viruses will diverge, we see that across the board, say with hepatitis C or HIV, there are subtypes or clades or genotypes, as we call them. This is a very new virus so we’re waiting to see how it will diverge and how it will settle.

“So, yes, it appears there are different sub types at this point in time, but we have no evidence to suggest one is more virulent than the other. I can’t say it won’t turn out to be the case, but certainly at this point in time we don’t have the evidence,” he said.

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