Hawaiʻi, a prime tourism destination, in combination with its largely multi-racial resident population, presents a unique opportunity to identify and chart the distribution of SARS-CoV-2 variants, the virus that causes the coronavirus disease. The National Institutes of Health has committed $779,792 for two years to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) toward advancing public impact research on the spread and continuing evolution of SARS-CoV-2 variants in the state’s underserved communities.
We want to further understand why certain variants are so much more transmissible than others.
—Vivek R. Nerurkar
The study, “Surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 Variants in Hawaiʻi,” is part of the Hawaiʻi IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program. It is based on the prediction that additional variants will be found in Hawaiʻi because of its high influx of recreational travelers from COVID-19 hotspots.
Vivek R. Nerurkar, professor and chair of JABSOM’s Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology & Pharmacology, leads a 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.
“We want to further understand why certain variants are so much more transmissible than others,” said Nerurkar, who has spearheaded COVID-19 diagnostic testing among the underserved and vulnerable populations in the state.
- Related UH News story: New UH lab provides free rapid result COVID-19 testing to underserved, December 4, 2020
The project represents a collaboration with four Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments-certified laboratories in Honolulu that perform FDA Emergency Use Authorization COVID-19 diagnostic tests. In addition, the study is providing a unique opportunity for participation by undergraduates in the Hawaiʻi INBRE student research program.
Algorithm to predict mutations
The research group’s work preceding this grant was 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 Hawaiʻi 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 Hawaiʻi INBRE Robert Nichols.
This research is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.