9OYS exclusive look inside ECU Brody School of Medicine’s COVID sequencing lab

Health Watch

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) – East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine is one of five places in the state of North Carolina that sequences for COVID-19 at such a high level.

So far, they’ve done the most sequences in the state with nearly 6,500 sent to a national database. The Brody Integrative Genomics Core Lab started in 2021.

“We received money from the CARES Act through ECU and were able to build the the-state-of-the-arts genomic core here,” said Dr. John Fallon, the chair of pathology for the Brody School and the medical director for Vidant labs.

Nine On Your Side took a behind-the-scenes tour of how they find COVID-19 variants.

Fallon has a five-person crew working in the lab. They receive COVID positive test samples from Vidant’s testing sites across Eastern North Carolina. Then those samples wait in a freezer until they get moved to the next room over, where they’re split into a 96 well-test plate.

“Once that’s all done they go on here to be RNA extracted,” Fallon said.

After a few steps at the first machine, the sample is almost ready for the sequencing step.

“That machine over there checks the quality of the RNA,” Fallon pointed out. “Once we know we have a good preparation, we load it into this box and it has everything, all the reagents for sequencing are loading in there.”

The state-of-the-art machines can sequence anywhere from 96 to 384 samples at one time, in a 12- to 24-hour time period.

“These sequences are nothing more than glorified cameras, and every time reagents come out of this box and into this flow cell, it takes a picture,” Fallon said.

Next, this data is saved in the system and sent to the next room to be analyzed.

“This is a sample that turned out to be delta, this is a sample that turned out to be omicron,” Fallon said as he looked at a recent sequence.

Once the doctors determine what variant is found, it’s sent to a national database, GISAID. The data is then shared with state health officials, and then back locally.

As cases continue to rise, the sequencing lab will continue to sequence for all of these variants.

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