TGen North, the Flagstaff-based division of the Translational Genomics Research Institute, has developed a test for the coronavirus and anticipates being able to deploy it in the near future.
“This is part of our role as a ‘genomic first responder’ and working with public health organizations as we track this disease,” said Dr. Dave Engelthaler, associate professor and co-director of TGen North.
Engelthaler said TGen developed its test shortly after the first U.S. case of the disease was reported in January. TGen’s test is now FDA-allowed under new fast-track approvals provided by the federal agency for tests developed by high-complexity testing laboratories like TGen in order to ramp up testing in the U.S.
The nonprofit is also working with entities like the Arizona Department of Health Services to provide what is known as “public health surveillance,” which helps agencies see how the virus is spreading. But its focus on researching the genomic structure of the virus puts it in the unique position to better understand the virus and ultimately help in the development of new antivirals and possibly a new vaccine for COVID-19.
“Genomics is our bread and butter and where we can really make an impact,” Engelthaler said. “We are conducting research in a number of areas for the COVID-19 virus, including immunology and early stage vaccine development work.”
This is not the first time TGen has been on the front lines of a public health emergency. It was instrumental in identifying the cause of a cholera outbreak in post-earthquake Haiti in 2010. It also investigated the source of a rare fungal meningitis outbreak that killed dozens in 2012 and was ultimately traced back to a pharmaceutical compounding company in New England.
More recently, TGen helped state, local and tribal health officials identify an outbreak of “hypervirulent” strep bacteria in the Southwest.