How a lab at Northeastern and technology developed in Watertown are helping identify new virus variants

BOSTON — The coronavirus is a moving target as variants emerge without any warning and being able to quickly identify these mutations is key to controlling the spread, and more importantly, keeping people safe.

Cutting edge work to do that is being done right here in Massachusetts.

Northeastern University has been aggressive in its approach to testing both students and employees. A special lab was set up in Burlington to monitor the tests the school requires everyone to take, and so far, about 800,000 tests have been analyzed.

The lab was set up by Jared Auclair, who thought from the beginning the analysis of the samples should be more sophisticated.

“What we’re doing in my lab at Northeastern is gearing up sequencing so that we can identify variants, so that we have information on them,” explained Auclair.

Currently, only about 1% of COVID-19 samples in the state are sequenced, meaning they’re tested for more than one strain of coronavirus.

That’s a concern as variants from the UK, Brazil, and South Africa become more prevalent.

“The problem being of course, as it does that, as we’re vaccinating people, it’s going to start creating variance that will evade vaccines,” said Auclair. “The variants that are more infectious and sometimes they’re more deadly.”

Aldatu Biosciences in Watertown developed technology that they believe can be a gamechanger in tracking variants. “We’ve developed a variant detection test so that labs can very quickly determine whether someone has a variant,” added company co-founder Iain MacLeod.

MacLeod says the sequencing technology used by the state lab takes several days to figure out if a variant is present. “We can do it in under two hours.”

Aldatu uses what they refer to as PANDAA technology. It doesn’t require a huge investment to get it up and running. The company had that goal in mind so it could easily be used in third-world countries.

“We know variants can change and probably change quicker than you might imagine. Our technology is an insurance policy,” said MacLeod.

This could be another big development from Boston’s scientific community, which has already contributed vaccines developed at Moderna and Beth Israel Deaconess to the fight against COVID-19.

“It’s incredible, I am not sure we would be able to do it anywhere else,” said MacLeod. “Everyone is willing to collaborate, take a risk, trying something new. So, I think it speaks a lot to the biotech hub that Boston is.”

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