Hacking the SARS-CoV-2 genome

KAUST researchers work to understand the SARS-CoV-2 genome to identify opportunities for treatment and vaccine development.
​-By KAUST News

A novel strain of coronavirus was first detected in December 2019 in Wuhan, a city in China's Hubei province with a population of 11 million, after an outbreak of pneumonia without an obvious cause.

The virus has now spread to over 150 countries across the globe and was characterized as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020.

Researchers across disciplines are coming together at KAUST to tackle this pressing global challenge by working to understand the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) to help protect our communities.

Sciencetown interview with Intikhab Alam

We spoke with Intikhab Alam for episode 10 of Sciencetown - Understanding the pandemic.

Available data and research on the virus is preliminary, and researchers are rapidly learning more about this new and evolving problem. At a two-day meeting in February, the WHO agreed an R&D Blueprint Strategy to serve as a framework to coordinate and accelerate global research efforts. The strategy identifies nine priorities for the medium- and long-term, which could contribute to the control of the outbreak.

Understanding the SARS-CoV-2 genome

KAUST researchers focus on discovering the genetic structure and topography of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which could pave the way to successful drug and vaccine trials.

"In the KAUST Computational Bioscience Research Center (CBRC), we have expertise in analyzing genomic data in a synergetic and collaborative way," stated Distinguished Professor Takashi Gojobri, acting director of the CBRC. "We have the resources (computer clusters, specialized analytic and visualization software) and the expertise that is being applied to this global challenge."

Vaccines are essential to helping stop the spread of viruses through the development of "herd immunity," but a vaccine can take months to years in development and testing before it becomes available. With this in mind, KAUST scientists are focusing their efforts on finding key genes that could be used for both detection and treatment of COVID-19 where people are already infected.

"I have been leading the development of the KAUST metagenome analysis platform (KMAP)," said Dr. Intikhab Alam, senior bioinformatician in the CBRC. "It is a platform for analysis of massive sequence data. KMAP can deal with data from all types of organisms, from viruses to bacteria [to] animals and plants, [that is] collected from moderate and extreme aquatic and terrestrial environments."

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