Germany catches up in attempt to monitor coronavirus mutations By Reuters

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By Ludwig Burger and Douglas Busvine FRANKFURT / BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany wants to boost gene sequencing efforts to closely track coronavirus mutations and catch up with European nations such as Britain and Denmark, which have taken the lead in the decoding of viral genomes. Scientists believe that the most contagious coronavirus variants have driven an increase in global coronavirus cases that have now surpassed 90 million, and nations are racing to procure vaccines and tighten lockdown measures. A draft government order published for discussion by the German Health Ministry this week would require that 5% of all coronavirus positive test samples be sent to specialized laboratories for a full genetic reading. That compares with a rate of around 5% to 10% of viral samples being sequenced in Britain, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s infectious diseases agency. Denmark, another pioneer in the field, has said it has the ability to test up to 10,000 positive samples per week. About 13% of all positive samples have been sequenced so far, a process that determines the order of chemical components in a DNA molecule, allowing researchers to identify changes in genes and ways to respond. Denmark hopes to further increase its sequencing capacity. “There is nothing stopping us from analyzing all the samples in Denmark, realistically within three weeks,” Mads Albertsen, professor of biotechnology at Aalborg University and director of Denmark’s largest genome sequencing facility, told Reuters. The RKI estimates that 200 to 250 cases were sequenced in December in Germany, which is the home of the COVID-19 vaccine developers BioNTech and CureVac. Britain, which has made mass gene sequencing a national priority, is sequencing several thousand cases every day. It began tracking virus mutations across its entire population early in the pandemic, led by the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium with partners such as the National Health Service and the Wellcome Sanger Institute. LESS VISIBILITY In its attempt to catch up, Germany would reimburse labs 200 euros ($ 243) per viral genome sequenced according to the draft order, while the government has earmarked 200 million euros for the effort. Marco Binder, a virologist at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg, which runs the country’s largest human genome sequencing facility, said the German scientific community traditionally had other priorities. Previously, sporadic sequencing of the coronavirus had been sufficient to keep up with its relatively slow genomic changes, but the emergence of more rapidly spreading variants posed a new imperative. “We probably underestimated that,” he said. “In fact, it is important and worth the effort to be able to follow up so quickly and well, also at the local level.” “In Germany we clearly have less visibility than in, say, the UK or Denmark,” he said. The association of German diagnostic laboratories, ALM, said the industry had the ability to fulfill the government’s call. “The 5% strike rate is quite doable,” said ALM board member Evangelos Kotsopoulos. “The capacity is there, the team is there, the people are there.” The ALM said some work was needed to ensure that German labs followed a common sequencing method, praising the open collaboration of Britain’s genomic sequencing effort. Scientists also see the need for a coordinated European approach. “This is not the last variant we will find,” Andreas Bergthaler of the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ Molecular Medicine Research Center said of the new strain in Britain. “We have to keep our eyes open and build these systems and technologies much more systematically.” ($ 1 = 0.8225 euros)