In the War Against COVID-19, Genomic Scientists Are Leading the Charge

Dr. Adriana Heguy and her team at New York Langone Health's Genome Technology Center.
Dr. Adriana Heguy and her team at New York University Langone Health's Genome Technology Center.Twitter/Dr. Adriana Heguy

Genomic scientists are on the front line of tracking COVID-19 and providing clues for a vaccine.

Scientists around the world are taking it upon themselves to map the genes of COVID-19 victims, the fundamental necessity of tracking the deadly virus and trying to develop a vaccine. In New York, which has America's highest number of coronavirus patients, such a team is led by Dr. Adriana Heguy, director of NYU Langone Health's Genome Technology Center.

"A lot of scientists had the same idea, to put whatever skills we have to jump on the pandemic," she told "This is very new, it's very contagious. We thought we just needed to jump on this boat."

Her center's New York genetic sequencing helped show that most of the city's COVID-19 victims were travelers who brought the virus from Europe, not Asia, where it originated. The center began genomic sequencing in mid-March, and their research was made public earlier this month.

It mirrored work done at Manhattan's Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine. The data appeared to show that New Yorkers had been walking around with the virus since at least February, before President Trump announced March 11 that European flights to the U.S. would be curtailed.

"We had a travel ban from China, but it took a while to have a travel ban from Europe," Heguy said.

She added that sharing such information is paramount to understanding how the virus mutates and where it comes from. 

"When all of this started, and I realized there was going to be an avalanche of coronavirus in New York ... we realized that we had to take advantage of our skills as genomists," she said. 

Genomists around the globe are using online databases such as and GISAID to share their findings. The latter contains more than 6,000 genetic maps from countries around the world, Heguy said.

Using DNA and RNA analyses to sequence genomes shows how the virus mutates, and how it changes as it spreads from one person to another.

"What they tell you is the evolution of the virus in genetic terms," Heguy explained. "Mutations of the virus that person X has is going to be different from mutations that person Y has."

Being able to track those mutations provides a blueprint for vaccine research. Though it is very early days in terms of developing an immunization form, such work can't begin without knowing how the virus evolves.

Heguy likens it to flu shots. Influenza vaccines change "every year and that is because the virus mutates. With this (coronavirus), it is very new" and its evolution remains to be seen.

But "if were not sequencing the mutations, then we're not prepared" to develop a vaccine, she said.

Yet even science in this pandemic is held hostage by social distancing. There are normally nine people working in Heguy's lab. These days, even though staff members are clad in protective gear, only two to three scientists are working at one time.

Instead, the staff is working staggered shifts at odd hours to painstakingly process coronvirus samples. Usually, their work entails tracking genomes in patients with cancer, cardiovascular disease and other infectious ailments.

"We've dropped everything else," she said.

"Everything is surreal," she continued. She recalled a recent conversation with her son. "I told him it's like watching a science fiction movie. A bad science fiction movie, where you're saying 'This could never happen!'''