The University of Montana’s Genomics Core Laboratory will soon begin research on COVID-19 variants after the lab has spent the last few weeks finalizing its research procedures. 

The laboratory  adds variant surveillance research to its efforts against COVID-19 after it began analyzing COVID-19 tests last fall. 

“This is pretty good for the Core actually, [to] take up this kind of work [and] then the Core is happy to do it. It did impact our other services around the campus, for other labs’ research. But again, everybody knows it’s a pandemic, so everybody understands this is a priority,” David Xing, the Genomics Laboratory manager,  said. 

Xing and Jeff Good are among those who will help oversee the research. 

Xing said prior to COVID-19 the core did genome sequencing on a variety of samples; including water, bacteria and other organisms from labs on and off campus. He said it was a challenge to transition the lab from its normal operations to a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments lab that has to report its test results daily. 

Audrey Little, an undergraduate research assistant at the core, said it’s been crazy to watch the lab go from its normal work to helping in the effort against COVID-19. 

“This normal kind of routine sequencing, it’s not really high-stakes or anything. It’s just normal research laboratories getting their data, and then suddenly everything’s like, ‘OK now it’s super important because this is actually testing real people and making sure they do or do not have COVID,’” Little said. “So, it's  been interesting to see that transition in the lab, and also now being a part of that research has been really interesting and very cool to do.” 

Little said she has been back to her normal, non-COVID duties with the lab since the end of last semester because there are separate staff members doing the COVID-19 tests. She said she has helped a little with preparing the methods for the variant research. 

Xing said the variant research will utilize the roughly 150 positive samples they have right now, largely from the Missoula community, UM athletics, and some from Curry Health Center. Xing said the state lab will begin providing more samples later on. 

He said the positive COVID-19 samples can be analyzed through three main levels of testing. 

The less in-depth analysis, called spike gene target failure, looks for specific characteristics seen in variants when mutations occur, such as a deletion. The second level is known as Sanger sequencing, and this method examines segments of the genome. Samples can also have their whole genome sequenced in what’s known as next generation sequencing. 

Little said her role with the new research will depend on her availability when she is in the lab, but she may be involved due to her experience with the sanger sequencing and preparing samples for next-generation sequencing. 

Zach Scott, the director for research compliance and technology transfer, said the variants are being analyzed through research because there is currently no FDA or CDC approved clinical diagnostic test for variants. He said, unlike COVID-19 tests, the results from the research will not go to clinicians or patients, but to public health officials in Montana to help give an overview of COVID-19 in the state. 

Xing said the research’s two main sources of funding will be the state of Montana and a grant the lab is applying for through the National Institutes of Health for roughly half a million dollars. 

He said the length of the research will depend on how long COVID-19 continues to circulate in the community. But even with more Montanans being vaccinated, research can still be done. 

Xing said despite the challenges the lab’s endured in shifting its operations since last fall, the lab is happy to help. 

“We feel proud to [enroll] the program, [enroll] the testing, and then we can do whatever we can to help the community to battle this virus,” Xing said.