CARPHA, the Caribbean Public Health Agency, will incorporate whole genome sequencing (WGS) testing to detect COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) variants, from Monday 15th November 2021, at the CARPHA Medical Microbiology Laboratory (CMML). 

An advisory from CARPHA explains that the process will allow CMML to monitor COVID-19 and track specific mutations of COVID-19 that have been circulating in CARPHA Member States.  CARPHA says this new service will provide a turnaround time of 14 days after receipt of samples by CMML from Member States.

“The whole genome sequencing process will allow the CMML to detect changes that may occur in the COVID-19 virus fingerprint over time and accelerate the delivery of results to Member States.  A better understanding of the virus’s genetic makeup could save lives by informing public health and clinical management, as well as support the development of medicines and vaccines to combat the virus,” stated Dr. Lisa Indar, Director of Surveillance, Disease Prevention and Control at CARPHA.

“CARPHA is pleased and very grateful that our International Development Partner, the World Bank, supported the expansion of the suite of services that we can offer our Member States in bolstering their fight against COVID-19,” stated Dr Joy St. John, CARPHA’s Executive Director.

The CARPHA advisory explains that each virus has its own genomic sequence, characterized by a unique “fingerprint”. Whole genome sequencing (WGS) is the most comprehensive method for genetic disease testing and can detect nearly all types of disease-causing genetic variants.

As a virus evolves, random changes or mutations occur. These changes can lead to the emergence of a new virus lineage, which is quite common. The genomic sequences of these new lineages will differ and are referred to as variations. Although many variants have little effect on the virus’s ability to propagate or cause disease, some changes can increase transmissibility, or allow the virus to evade natural or vaccine-induced immunity.

As the regional reference laboratory, the CMML continues to conduct tests for suspected COVID-19 cases and provide timely reporting of laboratory results to its Member States. The CMML boasts a turnaround time of 48 hours for PCR test results for Member States.

From December 2020 until the present, CARPHA and the University of the West Indies (UWI) embarked on a joint project to determine the different lineages of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that circulate in the Caribbean. UWI will continue testing samples, and further communication with our Member States will determine how many samples they can accommodate.

The CMML has plans to expand the scope of its gene sequencing services to include laboratory surveillance of other types of viruses and diseases of public health concern.

CARPHA also announced its new service during the virtual 35th Caribbean Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) Managers’ Meeting, which took place from 3rd – 5th November 2021. The meeting was hosted by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).