Local collaboration helps researchers everywhere better understand COVID-19

Nov 19, 2021 | Applied and Natural Sciences, Faculty/Staff, General News, Research, Students

VISTA illustration

Through collaborative efforts between local researchers and health care providers, along with community participation and engagement, progress is being made in gathering data that allows scientists to better understand how COVID-19 and variants might impact public health.

Louisiana Tech, Grambling State, and LSU Health Shreveport (LSUHS) have teamed with local organizations like the GSU’s Foster Johnson Health Center, TechCare, and The Health Hut to provide the opportunity for high quality testing and viral genome sequencing for minority and marginalized communities.

The group is performing viral genome sequencing using samples from area residents who have tested positive for COVID-19. Genome sequencing reveals the sequence of the nucleotides in a gene, like letters in a word. Nucleotides are organic molecules that form the structural unit building blocks of nucleic acids that make up the genetic code found in RNA or DNA.

The team is specifically interested in looking across the population at SARS-CoV-2 sequences to identify novel variants in the virus that causes COVID-19 so there can be an efficient response by public health officials. A critical element of this work is community engagement and representation; it is the only way that the team can assess and respond appropriately to changes in the virus.

“We now have a website along with a dashboard to share with the community what we are doing and what we are seeing,” said Dr. Jamie Newman, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies in the College of Applied and Natural Sciences at Tech. “Foster Johnson Health Center and The Health Hut have been some of our strongest partners in providing COVID-19 samples from informed and consenting patients. That participation is critical to community representation and a more accurate depiction of what’s happening with COVID-19 in our communities.”

Reliable viral genome sequencing will help accelerate timely analysis and inform response measures to keep countries one step ahead of the virus and counter emerging threats in the future.

This crucial part of the fight to understand current and future health threats is possible because of The Rockefeller Foundation, which took swift action at the outset of COVID-19 to invest in strategies and partners to address the pandemic in the US and globally. One of those initiatives, which is part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute, is a set of “Regional Accelerators” that participate in applying various methods of data collection and analysis to most appropriately and responsibly assess the status of the virus and the presence of it in communities.  These Regional Accelerator teams work together and with a global network of invested partners, committed to building data sets and analytics needed to detect, mitigate, and prevent pandemics.

The goal across all of this work that is exemplified by the Louisiana-based collaborators, is to increase the ability of health-care providers to respond quickly when a pandemic threatens and to build trust-based relationships with under-represented communities and the organizations that serve their health needs.  To date these efforts have reached the communities of Grambling, Ruston, and Minden and are quickly spreading to include other communities along the Louisiana I-20 corridor and into areas of Mississippi.

The project began in late spring.

“COVID-19 models suggest that we need to sequence 5 percent of all positive cases to detect emerging variants early,” Dr. Paul Kim, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at GSU, said. As Newman is doing at Tech, Kim is leading the efforts at Grambling. Dr. Jeremy P. Kamil at LSUHS serves as the project leader.

“Before we started in late July 2021, less than 0.5% of positive cases in Lincoln Parish were sequenced compared to roughly 2% in the US,” Kim said. “We’ve increased the rate of sequencing in our Parish by several fold which gives us a better chance to catch the next variant and respond to it before it spreads out of control like Delta..”

Under the grant, Louisiana Tech faculty and students partner with TechCare, The Health Hut, GSU Foster Johnson Health Center, and most recently, the Minden Family Care Center to collect, record, and analyze data on positive COVID-19 cases in Lincoln Parish. The research information can be found on the website focused on the project.

“It’s important for LSU Health to be involved in this collaboration because we cannot afford to leave Louisiana and, more specifically, north Louisiana and the I-20 corridor, and other less urban areas ‘off the map’ when it comes to science and technology, especially science and technology that can protect our health,” Kamil said. “And when it comes to coronavirus or other novel respiratory infections, we need to make sure all states and regions are developing the capacity to rapidly detect new viruses and even to figure out which already known viruses are bubbling up and causing a problem.

“The technology is more accessible than ever, and COVID-19 has taught us that we can save lives by making sure that we generate this data rapidly and that means doing it locally,” he said. “It also means we have to sequence viruses that are causing mild colds in kids, because what causes a mild cold in a child might send an elderly person to the hospital. In the future, we will be able to track infection activity like a weather report. And there’s no reason that students from Grambling or Louisiana Tech should not be able to learn how to take part in this important work.”

The project serves as a significant illustration of teamwork, according to Tech students involved in the research.

“Personally, I facilitate packaging and collection of specimens between the partners to make sure that data is entered into the platform,” said Biology student Caroline Dupree. “Taking care of our local community ‘family’ to me is what makes helping with the Rockefeller Foundation grant so meaningful. If our work leads to advances in treatment, care, and overall long-term advances to our future generations, then we have to count that as a step in the right direction.”

Geri Gravois is a Biology major minoring in pre-medical illustration with Tech’s VISTA (Visual Integration of Science Through Art) Center, where faculty from Art, Biology, and Biomedical Engineering work together to offer students a unique opportunity to communicate science through art.

“I have worked over the summer to create illustrations for our website with the primary goal to reach out to the public and convey approachability and community,” said Gravois, a sophomore from Zachary. “This project hopes to reach as many of the public as possible, encourage them to get tested for COVID-19 if they show symptoms, and consent for the viral genome of their tests to be sent off for sequencing. Knowing viral strains that occur in the population helps us know COVID-19 evolution and spreading patterns.”

Taking care of the community is as important as building trust with and educating the public on this type of health issue.

“When explaining the research study with patients, our staff informs them that the research is designed to determine the presence of viruses and the different type of variants within a community population,” said Chelsea Streets, who along with co-worker and fellow Tech graduate Jackie White, supports the project through her work at The Health Hut. “We explain to them that this information will help researchers better understand the virus. All patients have been accepting and willing to help any way that they can because they know that this research will be a big help to combat COVID-19. We feel that the research is moving in the right direction.”

Another goal for the project is to be a trusted resource in Lincoln Parish, Kim said.

“I think people who live here and have some kind of ties to Grambling, Louisiana Tech, or LSU Health Shreveport — maybe they are alumni or their kids go here or they know someone who works here — they might trust us more than big federal agencies,” Kim said. “We’re making progress here engaging with people through our partner clinics and working on outreach events.”

During its Oct. 16 Homecoming Weekend, Grambling held “Health Starts at Home,” an on-campus health fair to share information and raise awareness.

“Community engagement is crucial, but it’s also the hard part; sequencing the virus in the lab is easier if you ask me,” Kim said. “Jamie (Newman) took the lead on rolling out our website built specifically for our community that is giving us a platform for that engagement.”

“We have been pleasantly surprised by the willingness of the community to engage and to participate in this initiative,” Newman said.  “In July and early August when there was a fourth surge in Louisiana, we saw that too (in northwest Louisiana) with the cases showing up at the sites we are sampling from. That has dropped recently, and while we hope we don’t see another surge, it does mean there is a diminishing number of samples at this time.”

The project is hopeful of getting at least 200 samples. It has received “well over 100 samples” so far, Kamil said. In achieving this goal, this team of scientists and clinicians are building a model for how disease monitoring can be done locally and how academic institutions can partner with their communities to ensure representation and improve health outcomes.

“A key aspect of this work however is to rapidly share the data so that scientists and public health workers all around the world can study how coronavirus is evolving,” Kamil said. “In the near future we hope to add other viruses, like flu and RSV, to the menu of infections we are tracking.

“Anyone can help by sharing a sample if you happen to test positive for COVID-19, or educating others to do so as well, or ask us how you can get involved in the work, and in teaching others about viruses.”

If you have recently tested positive for COVID-19 and want to provide a sample for genomic sequencing, or if you are a health care professional or community organizer who is interested in partnering with the project to bring viral genome sequencing to your community, find out how the project can help you here.