University of Tartu researchers continue to study coronavirus strains circulating in Estonia

In the new funding period of the KoroGeno-EST project, medical researchers of the University of Tartu are planning to sequence and analyse up to 6,500 full-genomic sequences of SARS-CoV-2 in Estonia. An interactive environment to display the most important results of KoroGeno-EST-3 is also being created.

Kristi Huik, Associate Professor in Medical Microbiology and Virology of the University of Tartu and head of the KoroGeno-EST-3 project, said that KoroGeno-EST-3 largely continues the work of previous projects – the percentage of strains of clinical interest and bearing critical mutations is assessed both within Estonia as well as among the infected coming from abroad – but there are also innovations.

“These strains have so far included the so-called English (B.1.1.7), South African (B.1.351), Brazilian (P.1) and Indian (B.1.617.2) strain, but new strains are constantly emerging. From the point of view of the epidemic, it is very important to identify them early and monitor their dynamics,” emphasised Huik. In cooperation with the Estonian Health Board, molecular-epidemiological analysis of outbreaks is carried out using the data obtained, supporting the Health Board in monitoring and managing the outbreaks.

As one innovation, Huik mentions the creation of a set of interactive tools to graphically display various aspects of the results of KoroGeno-EST-3. “This tool, together with sequencing, continuous analysis of strains and experts’ assessments, allows the Health Board and other persons and institutions that manage the epidemic to monitor the situation directly and help to plan local and national activities,” said Huik.

The associate professor admitted that at the start of the project, KoroGeno-EST was a major challenge for the researchers, as the full-genome analysis of the virus was not their main job. By now, the methodology and the division of work are better in place. “Today, a commercial sequencing methodology exists, but at the beginning of the projects, we had to develop it ourselves and keep it constantly changing as needed. In addition, dealing with KoroGeno-EST projects has required postponing or dismissing all other studies and tasks,” said Huik, expressing the wish to continue with other research topics as well.

The full-genome analysis of viruses causing SARS-CoV-2 infection was launched in Estonia on 1 September 2020. Under the guidance of researchers of the Institute of Biomedicine and Translational Medicine and the Institute of Technology of the University of Tartu, KoroGeno-EST-3, the third follow-up study of the project, will run until 31 December 2021.

The team of KoroGeno-Est projects includes researchers from the Institute of Biomedicine and Translational Medicine, the Institute of Technology, the Institute of Genomics, the Institute of Computer Science and the Institute of Clinical Medicine of the University of Tartu as well as specialists from SYNLAB Eesti and the Health Board.

Further information:
Kristi Huik
Associate Professor in Medical Microbiology and Virology of the University of Tartu