Illumina campus
The Illumina Campus in San Diego. Courtesy of the company

San Diego-based sequencing company Illumina and genomics company Helix announced a collaboration Tuesday aimed at expanding efforts to identify emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2.

Illumina and San Mateo-based Helix — which operates a sequencing laboratory in San Diego — have already collaborated over the past several weeks to identify 51 of the first 54 reported U.S. cases of B.1.1.7, the more contagious COVID-19 variant first found in the United Kingdom, according to a joint statement from the companies.

Helix analyzed recent positive samples for the potential presence of the B.1.1.7 variant, then sequenced a subset of those samples using Illumina’s COVIDSeq test, which identified the variant in four samples from California and Florida.

“Genomic surveillance is essential in fighting the pandemic. Illumina is pleased to partner with the CDC and Helix to provide accurate sequencing that can contribute to rapidly scaling genomic surveillance in the U.S. to better understand the presence of B.1.1.7 and other variants as they emerge in our communities,” said Dr. Phil Febbo, Illumina’s chief medical officer.

The companies say the collaboration will be expanded to examine a higher volume of samples on an ongoing basis for both the presence of B.1.1.7 and new strains.

“Having a robust surveillance effort in place is critical to understanding how the SARS-CoV-2 virus is evolving, and how our public health response needs to adapt,” said Dr. James Lu, co-founder and president of Helix. “By bringing together the strengths of Helix, Illumina and the CDC, we
were able to quickly evaluate the prevalence of this new variant and take learnings from this effort to better and more proactively characterize future strains that will emerge.”

— City News Service