NAU microbiologist Paul Keim joins COVID-19 Genomics Union to track virus, lead state’s response to pandemic

Paul Keim

The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), an affiliate of City of Hope, The Pathogen and Microbiome Institute at Northern Arizona University and the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Arizona have formed a union dedicated to tracking the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Harnessing the power of state-of-the-art technology and “big data” analysis, researchers at the newly formed Arizona COVID-19 Genomics Union (ACGU) seek to better understand how this virus may be evolving, how it is transmitted and how it is moving through the general population. This molecular epidemiological approach combines traditional epidemiology methods with evolutionary modeling based on high-resolution analysis of the virus’ genome.

ACGU scientists will sequence samples from COVID-19 patients to analyze the virus’ genetic codes, track its different strains, show where each sample originates from, where it may have been transmitted and possibly reveal details that could provide critical information for diagnostics, anti-viral drug targets and vaccine development.

NAU professor Paul Keim will serve as director of the ACGU. Keim is a world-renowned expert in pathogens such as bubonic plague and anthrax. He worked with the FBI to crack the “anthrax letters” case in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He is a Regents’ Professor of Biology, holds the Cowden Endowed Chair in Microbiology and is Executive Director of The Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI). He is a distinguished professor at TGen and co-director of TGen North.

“Genome sequences are ideal for distributed scientific research efforts and the Arizona Union will rely heavily on national and global studies to track the disease,” Keim said. “Nevertheless, it is critical that regional experts engage in this process to maximize the benefits for Arizona citizens.”

David Engelthaler, co-director and associate professor of TGen’s Pathogen and Microbiome Division, known as TGen North, and Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona also will lead the union. Engelthaler is Arizona’s former State Epidemiologist and State Biodefense Coordinator. He was formerly with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and has led investigations of local, national and international disease outbreaks for more than 25 years, starting with Arizona’s 1993-94 hantavirus outbreak. He will coordinate the new ACGU’s genomic sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.

“Only by using genomic sequencing and advanced analyses can we begin to fully understand this disease at the molecular level, looking for keys to unlock its mysteries,” Engelthaler said. “We have the ability to sequence the genome of every strain from every patient—that’s what we are working toward.”

Worobey is the head of University of Arizona’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department and is world-renowned for his work on viral pandemics. Using genomic epidemiology, he has definitively tracked the origins and worldwide spread of HIV and also determined why the 1918 “Spanish influenza” pandemic killed millions of young adults.

“Molecular analysis of viruses provides crucial clues about how pandemics begin and how to fight them,” Worobey said. “We will be capitalizing upon Arizona’s wealth of talent and infrastructure in this endeavor.”

The Arizona COVID-19 Genomics Union is similar to other groups across the globe that are working to gain a foothold in fighting this new coronavirus. Rapid sharing of data and analysis has been, and continues to be, critical to scientific, medical and public health understanding of the pandemic. Ironically, the first U.S. epicenter of COVID-19, Seattle, also is home to NextStrain, the internet home for genome tracking of this and other pathogens.

The consortium of Arizona scientists hope that their regional sequencing will give Arizona healthcare providers and public policy makers an edge in responding to this pandemic.

Like NextStrain, ACGU will make its findings public and available to epidemiologists and virologists worldwide.

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Kerry Bennett | Office of the Vice President for Research