COVID-19 pandemic delays Gene Sequencer Machine installation

The Gene Sequencer Machine, which was procured in 2019 with the support from the World Health Organization (WHO) at a cost of more than Nu 10 million, remains unused in the Royal Centre for Disease Control (RCDC) due to the lack of experts to install the machine in the country.

Head of RCDC and NI-TAG member, Dr Sonam Wangchuk, said due to COVID-19 pandemic, and restriction of movement, the experts from the machine company could not come to Bhutan for the installation work. Otherwise, the machine would have been installed last year. Once the gene-sequencing machine is installed, the country will be able to minimize the genetic material samples that are sent outside for genome sequencing.  

Dr Sonam Wangchuk said it is important to have the machine installed soon since there are many public health concerns in the country, and knowing the epidemiology, that a lot of viruses are coming in or imported from outside. Therefore, the gene-sequencing machine can help in finding out the source of the virus.

“We only know there are many types of viruses within the country, but not much idea about the types of viruses and its origin. So that is why, the gene sequencing machine was brought to the country.”

Genomic sequencing is a process for analyzing a sample of DNA taken from the blood. In the lab, technicians extract DNA and prepare it for sequencing. Gene sequencing will look into the genetic level, sequencing the DNA or RNA of the virus. It actually provides the information of the virus, whether they are the same or different viruses. Even to develop vaccines, it is important to understand the entire genome sequence. The gene sequencing is done to understand the molecular epidemiology of the virus or how the virus is changing, also from where the virus has come or its origin.

For example, when Bhutan detected the first COVID-19 case, the virus needed a gene sequence to see the origin of the virus. Similarly, with the influenza virus, Dr Sonam said every year the virus changes and to identify the change of virus, gene sequencing is done.

The gene sequencing has a lot of applications, and for Bhutan, the machine will try to determine the origin and types of variants. And also to determine any sort of bacteria or virus, how this virus is totally different from others. Basically, the same pathogens are seen in different places and try to compare them at genetic level, said Dr Sonam.

The current gene sequence cannot determine the human genome where it determines the cancer risk, but in future, the country may secure such a machine.

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