Winnipeg-based researchers on the lookout for virus variants

Winnipeg-based researchers who have spent months studying mutations of the virus that causes COVID-19 got to work within hours of the first reports of a new variant detected in the United Kingdom last month. 

Dr. Guillaume Poliquin, acting head of the National Microbiology Laboratory, and his team have been working on analyzing the genetic structure of the virus in order to anticipate and detect variants since March.

When the discovery of the new strain of SARS-CoV-2 — which scientists believe can spread more easily — was first announced on Dec. 14, the Winnipeg researchers used their tools to determine what was known and to be present in Canada and identify key next steps.

“Now we’re in the step where we’re trying to grow the mutant viruses themselves, so that we can then do experiments in the lab … to really push the science even further,” said Poliquin.

Mutations in viruses like the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 occur frequently over time. Poliquin compared the virus’s genetic code to a book, and the lab’s tools then read the book looking for so-called typos.

A scientist at the National Microbiology Laboratory prepares a genome sequencing run. (Cory Aronec Photography LTD)

“When we’re looking for a variant, we’re essentially looking for a mutation, or a typo, in the sequence that changes the virus in a way that changes either its ability to be diagnosed, its ability to transmit, its ability to cause disease,” he said.

Variant detected in Canada

Health officials in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec have recently confirmed cases of the new coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom.

The new strain of the virus contains a change to the spike protein on its outer surface that makes it “stickier” and allows it to infect human cells more easily, Poliquin said.

Although the new variant appears to be more infectious, scientists have not found any evidence that it is any deadlier, resistant to vaccines that have been developed or harder to detect.

Last summer, another variant of the virus known as D614G appeared in Canada. At the time, scientists worried that it might have been more contagious, but further research did not confirm that, Poliquin said.

A global network

The National Microbiology Laboratory is part of a network of labs across Canada and around the world who are sharing information on the virus.

“We have worked tirelessly with the Canadian Public Health Lab Network to take the tests and the approaches that we generate here, and make them available across Canada, through labs, so that confirmation can happen faster and closer to the point of testing,” he said.

For example, in the event that a new variant of the virus appears that requires a new test in order to detect, that work would be done at the lab in Winnipeg.

“We would be able to then project that information and that know-how across the country from here,” Poliquin said.

If a test was needed to detect a new coronavirus variant, that work would be done at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

The lab is working on bringing testing technologies to First Nations, to allow testing to be done closer to the point of care.

It’s also monitoring wastewater in certain areas to try to understand how the virus is transmitting at a community level, Poliquin said, and developing ways to monitor people through antibody testing to better understand community transmission.