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Research

Carolina leads $15 million statewide COVID-19 surveillance program funded by NC Policy Collaboratory

The surveillance program, led by UNC-Chapel Hill's Dirk Dittmer, Amir Barzin and Audrey Pettifor, will collect, sequence and share data on SARS-CoV-2 samples from across the state, providing real-time information on variants circulating in North Carolina.

Am image of the coronavirus
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. (illustration by CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM)

A team of researchers at Carolina is leading a surveillance effort to facilitate and enhance genomic sequencing capabilities of the SARS-CoV-2 virus across North Carolina. The CORVASEQ — Coronavirus Variant Sequencing — Surveillance Network is a partnership between the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Division of Public Health and the NC Policy Collaboratory.

In March of 2021, the North Carolina General Assembly allocated $15 million to support the Collaboratory-led surveillance effort. Co-principal investigators for the effort are Dirk Dittmer, director of the UNC Viral Genomics Core and member of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center; Amir Barzin, medical director for the UNC Health Virtual Care Services and leader of the Carolina Together Testing Program; and Audrey Pettifor, professor in the Department of Epidemiology in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

“We’re really speeding everything up and trying to develop a methodical approach to sequencing SARS-CoV-2 samples across the state,” Barzin said. “Whereas before, we were getting sequencing reports once a month, this information will be turned around and available to leaders and researchers within days.”

CORVASEQ includes the following academic institutions as sequencing hubs: Duke University, East Carolina University, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte and Wake Forest University. In addition to the health care systems affiliated with Duke, Carolina and Wake Forest, the following health care systems will also provide COVID-19 samples for sequencing: Atrium, HCA Healthcare, Novant, the VA System and Vidant. Information will be shared with NCDHHS, which will help inform what actions state and local leaders may need to take regarding safety precautions.

“Until now, everyone was working by themselves and taking samples of convenience,” Dittmer said. “This is designed to make sure every part of the state is represented and everyone has access to this sequencing.”

An online dashboard will be created as part of the information sharing and epidemiological tracking aspects of the program, which will be designed by Pettifor and her team in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, with input from the NCDHHS.

“This program will help us track whether there are particular segments of the population in North Carolina that are being more affected by Delta or another variant. We can also identify a potential outbreak quicker with this resource,” Pettifor said.

Jeffrey Warren, executive director of the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, is hopeful that this collaboration will open doors for future projects and health initiatives.

“NCDHHS is acutely aware of the critical importance of the groundwork being laid through creating this surveillance infrastructure,” Warren said. “Once this network is established, it can be used moving forward to not only surveil SARS-CoV-2 variants, but other virological and epidemiological concerns the state will face at some point in the future. It’s not if, but when, and we are now prepared.”