Houston researchers monitor virus mutations to fight COVID-19 pandemic

HOUSTON – Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine are going far beyond the search for a vaccine.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the BCM transformed an academic research lab studying Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) in children into one that has direct access to COVID-19 patient samples.

“We’re collecting samples, and we’re testing them daily with about a 24-hour turn-around,” said Dr. Pedro Piedra.

Piedra said the labs receive samples from Baylor’s affiliated hospitals and can test up to 350 samples a day. Positive samples are then thoroughly mapped to keep tabs on changes in the virus.

“So we have sequences from back in March that were in Houston, and we can compare with the ones here and see how the virus is changing over time,” said Dr. Vasanthi Avadhanula. “There’s not much mutation, but there are changes that are occurring in the virus.”

Avadhanula said COVID-19 is unique in that researchers have seen some patients with high viral loads experience no symptoms while some patients with low amounts of the virus experience severe symptoms.

This is where mapping the virus and then matching the strain to a patient and his or her symptoms can help unlock, which segments of the population are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Piedra said tracking changes in the virus is key to developing a vaccine that can cover multiple strains of the virus.