Private companies keen on Covid genome sequencing, but funding an issue

Several bioinformatics and genome research companies in Bengaluru have shown interest in aiding the government in Covid-19 genome sequencing, which they say can help experts understand virus mutations and plan appropriate response.

Public-private partnership, they say, can ramp up India’s genome sequencing efforts.

The country is currently sequencing below 1% of the total Covid positive samples as against a target of 5% of positive cases. Since sequencing the virus is slightly expensive, with each test costing around ₹6,000, funding has become a bottleneck.

Vijay Chandru, cofounder of bioinformatics firm Strand

Life Sciences

, said companies have already invested in this space and they have adequate tools for sequencing.

“With the kind of ecosystem we have in Bengaluru, laboratories and firms here can sequence up to 2,000 samples a day. Even if we do effective sequencing for the next 2-3 months, it can help us combat the third wave,” he said. Chandru is also a member of Karnataka’s Covid-19 genomic surveillance committee.

Private firms that are accredited to the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL), he said, are better equipped to scale up sequencing with proper safety and quality control. “We are all running labs that have been accredited for many years now. Karnataka being a technology hub, can take the lead in sequencing,” he said.

City-based Clevergene Biocorp, a deep tech company that offers genomic services for contract research, entered into an agreement with CSIRCentral Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), Msyuru, last December to sequence a small volume of SARS-CoV-2 samples.

Ongoing research has shown how new variants are fast emerging from this region, said Clevergene’s CEO, Tony Jose. Result of the study that looks at mutations, virulence, susceptibility and infection patterns is likely to be released soon. The company did not hear back from some of the state governments that it reached out to seeking collaboration in sequencing, Jose said.

As for Karnataka, deputy chief minister CN Ashwath Narayan, who is also head of the state Covid taskforce, said the government is roping in foundations and companies to fund sequencing by private firms.

“The Rockefeller Foundation too has committed to fund genome sequencing, ” he said.

V Ravi, state nodal officer for genomic confirmation of SARS-CoV-2, said samples that are sequenced currently in government institutes are sufficient to detect new variants.

“Our studies have contributed to the global understanding of the virus. We were the first to sequence delta variants,” he said.

At present, only two research institutes from Karnataka — NIMHANS and National Centre for Biological Sciences — are contributing to the national sequencing database. These institutes are part of Indian SARSCoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG), a consortium set up by the union health ministry to study and monitor variants of Covid-19 virus.

A few more institutes were added to the platform recently, but they are yet to start the work.