New technology allows rapid analysis and mapping of new potential virus variants

Variants of viruses such as those that cause COVID-19 can now be quickly examined in the laboratory before they appear in nature and become a major public health challenge.

The University of Queensland, the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, Monash University and Queensland Health have developed a technology for synthetic virus manipulation that enables rapid analysis and mapping of new potential virus variants.

UQ’s lead researcher Professor Alexander Khromykh said the technology is ideal for use during a global pandemic like COVID-19.

This technique should enable us to answer questions about whether potential virus variants are susceptible to a particular drug or vaccine before they even appear in nature. “

Alexander Khromykh, Senior Researcher and Professor, University of Queensland

“So far we’ve mostly just waited for viral variants and responded when they came up, and in the case of SARS-CoV-2, the world has been hit by Indian, British and South African variants, to name a few.

“Now we can mimick the massive ‘experiment’ in nature – where these mutations appear through natural selection – but we can safely do this in a tightly controlled and highly regulated biosafety laboratory environment.”

The process developed by UQ uses copies of fragments of the viral genetic material to assemble the functional viral genome in a test tube.

This allows scientists to quickly generate virus variants and assess their potential for bypassing antiviral treatments and vaccine-induced immunity.

QIMR Berghofer helped evaluate infections and diseases caused by the test-tube virus in preclinical models to ensure the technology was able to generate authentic viruses.

QIMR Berghofer’s Professor Andreas Suhrbier said research is essential as viruses are constantly changing.

“We can now monitor changes in viruses like SARS-CoV-2 and see which variants may not respond to certain vaccines and antiviral treatments.

“We can also examine whether potential variants are more or less virulent in mice and find out which drugs and vaccines are effective.

“It is great to finally have this important tool and to address these challenging questions.”


Journal reference:

Yellow, AA, et al. (2021) A Versatile Reverse Genetics Platform for SARS-CoV-2 and Other Positive-Strand RNA Viruses. Nature communication.

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