Professor, Molecular Genetics and Virology
The University of the West Indies
St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad and Tobago
Director, GVN Center of Excellence
What are you and your laboratory currently working on regarding COVID-19?
Since the start of the COVID-19 epidemic, members of our team have been contributing to public education and providing expert advice, training and technical support to local and regional institutions. In terms of research, we recently initiated a project, “COVID-19: Infectious Disease Molecular Epidemiology for Pathogen Control & Tracking (COVID-19 IMPACT)”, which established local capacity for rapid virus whole genome sequencing. This means that viral genomics can now be incorporated into COVID-19 mitigation and control efforts in Trinidad & Tobago and other Caribbean countries. The project (for which I am the Principal Investigator) is a collaboration involving investigators from The University of the West Indies (St. Augustine Campus), the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Health, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), the University of London and the University of Oxford. In addition to using this sequencing capacity to address specific questions posed by public health organizations, we will use the sequence data to track and investigate the phylodynamics of the virus in our region, in order to better guide and assess the effect of circulation and evolution of SARS-CoV-2 on establishing public health policies and interventional strategies. We are committed to sharing our sequence data with the scientific community through GISAID, so that our Caribbean perspective can be incorporated into global COVID-19 research efforts.
What research are you conducting on the SARS-CoV-2 variants?
Last December, within a couple weeks of implementing our nanopore sequencing and bioinformatics pipeline, and generating our first SARS-CoV-2 sequence, the emergence of the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 lineages was reported. We were immediately called upon by the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Health and CARPHA (which serves 21 Caribbean member states) to carry out genomic surveillance for these and other variants of concern. So far we’ve detected the B.1.1.7 lineage in travellers arriving into three of the islands and in the local population of two islands. Vaccines will soon be available in the Caribbean, so it is important that we continue to monitor these variants and to screen for other lineages with mutations thought to be associated with higher transmission rates and / or immune escape.