JABSOM research wins supplemental INBRE award to track the spread of SARS-CoV2 variants

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Hawaiʻi– a prime tourism destination, in combination with its largely multi-racial resident population, presents an unparalleled opportunity to identify and chart the distribution of SARS-CoV-2 variants, the virus that causes the coronavirus disease. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has recently committed funds to the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine (UH JABSOM) towards advancing research on the spread and continuing evolution of SARS-CoV-2 variants in underserved communities.

The study, “Surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 Variants in Hawaiʻi,” part of the Hawaiʻi IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program, has been awarded $779,792 dollars for two years from the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Dr. Vivek R. Nerurkar, professor and chair of the UH Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology & Pharmacology, leads the team of graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and bioinformaticians, including the INBRE Bioinformatics Core group, in sequencing and analyzing the genetic information of these variants circulating throughout the state. The project represents a collaboration with four CLIA-certified laboratories in Honolulu that perform FDA EUA COVID-19 diagnostic tests. In addition, the study is providing a unique opportunity for participation by undergraduates in our Hawai’i INBRE student research program.

The study is based on the prediction that additional variants will be found in Hawai’i because of its high influx of recreational travelers from COVID-19 hotspots. “We want to further understand why certain variants are so much more transmissible than others,” said Dr. Nerurkar, who has spearheaded COVID-19 diagnostic testing among the underserved and vulnerable populations in the state.

The research group’s work preceding this grant has recently been published in Research Square, the Hawaiʻi Journal of Health and Social Welfare and in bioRxiv, where they present an algorithm developed to predict particular mutations that can lead to more transmissible COVID-19 variants. “We developed this model hoping we can contribute to the new generation vaccines so that there is no delay in preparing the new vaccines when variants arrive,” Nerurkar said.

“The work by Dr. Nerurkar and his team will ensure that Hawaii is out in front of any new variants of concern either entering the state or arising here on the islands, as part of a national effort to track and quickly respond to the entry and movement of coronavirus variants across the states” said Principal Investigator and Director of the Hawai’i INBRE Dr. Robert Nichols.