The SARS-CoV-2 virus has been isolated and the full genome sequenced at ICGEB Trieste – Italy

Alessandro Marcello, Group Leader, Molecular Virology lab, together with a task force team established by the Region, has reached a first, major goal in the battle against coronavirus.

In the Friuli Venezia Giulia Region in North-Eastern Italy, the first cases of COVID-19 where identified on the 1st of March, 2020. A task force to isolate and sequence the SARS-CoV-2 virus circulating in the Region was swiftly formed, to include Alessandro Marcello, Pierlanfranco D’Agaro, who heads the diagnostic reference centre, “Azienda Sanitaria Universitaria Giuliano Isontina” in Trieste and Danilo Licastro, responsible for the Genome sequencing platform, AREA Science Park of Trieste

Positive swabs from infected individuals were seeded on cells by Sreejith Rajasekharan, postdoc at ICGEB, and virus was rescued initially from four samples. Rapid full genome sequencing of the viral RNA genomes was then obtained for all samples. This result has been obtained in such a short time thanks to the network of scientific excellence present in the city of Trieste.

Two important results were achieved: first, full-genome sequencing of viral isolates is required to understand the genetic evolution of the virus during the pandemic and to track the origin of the viruses that reached the Region.

Second, the availability of viral isolates allows research on diagnostic, antivirals and vaccines to take place effectively. The biosafety level 3 laboratories for pathogenic virus manipulation at the ICGEB has special engineering and containment features that allow investigators to work safely with known or possible human pathogens, including coronavirus. Initial work focuses on the setup of molecular and serological assays for COVID-19. This work is essential to identify infected individuals and those who had already experienced the infection.

These tools will be made freely available to other researchers of the ICGEB constituency. Candidate antiviral drugs can now be tested on the virus, which is the first step towards a cure, and the immunological response capable of neutralising the virus can be fully studied. COVID-19 is a completely new disease that we are only starting to understand. Research is necessary to unravel the complex host cell response to infection and to identify key vulnerabilities.

The President of the FVG Regione Massimo Fedriga, and the Deputy President responsible for Health, Riccardo Ricciardi both expressed their keen appreciation on these results.

Lawrence Banks, ICGEB Director-General has stated that the work and the results obtained by the team of local scientific experts in Trieste, including Alessandro Marcello, ICGEB Molecular Virology Group Leader, and his laboratory, are exemplary. They reflect a swift and courageous action that should lead forward into the development of improved surveillance and diagnostic tools to respond to the current crisis and to lead to improved strategies for prevention and treatment.  This exemplifies the best that scientific collaboration can strive to achieve to address urgent issues affecting the entire planet, and building solidarity and hope.

In a show of international solidarity, Mr. Zhang Xiaobing, President of China Medical City (CMC), Taizhou, China, has offered to send medical equipment to Trieste. In January 2020, the cooperation agreement for the ICGEB China Regional Research Centre was signed in Taizhou to deepen cooperation and exchanges in many fields. “At this moment”, President Xiaobing says “overcoming COVID-19 outbreaks worldwide is a shared goal. The CMC stands together with ICGEB.”

ICGEB stands together with Trieste, with the Region, with Italy, and with all countries in facing this health crisis.

Further reading:

Measures in place at ICGEB Trieste

STDaily, China: International Alliance for Science and Technology Communication ICGEB gene sequencing concerns the new coronavirus

Press Contact: Suzanne Kerbavcic
kerbav@icgeb.org