Posted on June 01, 2020

Around the world, every day, organizations are working to better understand and battle the coronavirus that has plagued the entire planet. Efforts range from ensuring the availability of testing kits and Personal Protective Equipment to developing vaccines and therapeutics for the currently untreatable disease COVID-19.

Scientists continue to study the virus and its nature, but Qatar Foundation’s Qatar Genome Program (QGP) is choosing to look at it from a different perspective: how do genomic variations in hosts affect the way the virus behaves? Led by its chairperson, Professor Asmaa Al-Thani, QGP is investing its resources in using the data it has obtained on the Qatari genome, as well as continually collecting more data with the aim of supporting efforts to determine how and why the coronavirus has a different effect on different people and populations.  

“In a certain few countries, young people seem to be more susceptible to contracting the virus and becoming critically ill from it, while other places have higher rates among their older population,” said Professor Al-Thani. “Age is definitely a factor, but these variances all point towards the importance of investigating the underlying genetics of these populations and relating them to the virus sequences circulating in those communities.”

Having already sequenced over 18,000 Qatari genomes, QGP is well-positioned to conduct this kind of research. While samples collected by Qatar Biobank, also a member of Qatar Foundation, and studied by QGP were previously limited to Qataris in order to build a genome database for the population, the range has now been widened to include residents of Qatar – a nation with a hugely diverse population spanning a wide range of nationalities including children.

Infection rates among children are low, and observing their genomes might help in understanding why. “We’re also seeking consent from patients suffering from COVID-19 to sequence their genomes. That will be a key factor in allowing us to determine how this virus manifests itself differently in patients,” Professor Al-Thani said.

In her academic and research role, Dr. Al-Thani – who holds a PhD in medical virology - is a professor of virology at Qatar University and Adjunct Virology professor at QF partner university Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar. Her work includes supporting efforts to increase local capacity in responding to viral outbreaks, and, as director of the Biomedical Research Center at Qatar University (BRC), she leads the only Biosafety level 3 laboratory for research in Qatar, which is currently  used to help the Ministry of Public Health face the pandemic.

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Student research plays an integral role as well. Dr. Al-Thani is supervising several PhD and Master’s students in this field, including research at QF member Hamad Bin Khalifa University with Dr. Hadi Yassine, Faculty at BRC, on genetic susceptibility to infectious diseases.

QGP has also established a new platform with Oxford Nanopore Technologies, which enables whole genome sequencing to be conducted within just eight hours. This allows for a deeper study of tracing infection, as well as the discovery of mutations that might cause some people to be affected more severely than others. If mutations like these are discovered, scientists at QGP can  inform clinicians to closely monitor patients for severe symptoms.

Since genetic variations among different populations may be responsible for the severity of infection rates and illness in certain parts of the world, QGP aims to compare outcomes of Qatar’s genome sequencing with that of other countries. Collaborations with Genomics England and Tor Vergata University of Rome, Italy, with its rector and world-renowned medical geneticist Professor Giuseppe Novelli, are already underway to find if viral outcomes are different and why. “We’re also hoping to conduct a comprehensive convergent study on how the virus is affecting different populations from a genomics perspective, the topic of the PhD research of Maria Samati, a student of HBKU,” said Professor Al-Thani.

Genomic and viral surveillance is a significant part of preparedness when it comes to viral outbreaks like COVID-19. According to Professor Al-Thani, the SARS outbreak led to considerable international research investments in the field in the years 2003 and 2004, but unfortunately, once the situation eased, these efforts were withdrawn.

“A lack of qualified personnel globally is one of the primary reasons why we have a huge gap in understanding this virus and potentially preventing mutations, as well as a lack of funding for research into infectious diseases and emerging outbreaks either in humans or animals.” she explained. “There is a strong need for more researchers and graduate students to work in this field and contribute to efforts that could help us to be much better prepared for future pandemics.”