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29 September 2020
WHO chooses SANBI at UWC as national reference lab to join the fight against COVID-19 in Africa
The South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) has been chosen as one of the three regional reference laboratories in the World Health Organization (WHO’s) network. These laboratories will provide sequencing, data analysis and are supported by an additional nine laboratories for technical support services to the countries where they are located as well as to neighbouring countries and countries in their sub-regions.

With several African countries now expanding COVID-19 testing, the WHO and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) have launched a network of laboratories to reinforce genome sequencing and analysis of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19, in Africa.

The director of SANBI and the research chair of Bioinformatics and Health Genomics, Professor Alan Christoffels said it is exciting to see the endorsement from the WHO for the roll-out of a pan-African implementation plan through the African Union.  

“As a team at UWC, we recognise the responsibility on us to transfer skills to others on the African continent as we collectively strive to respond to epidemics in general and more specifically to COVID-19. As a regional reference laboratory, there will be expectations that will be both challenging and exciting to meet,” he said.

SANBI together with two other centres will act as reference labs to respond to pandemics such as COVID-19. This is part of a global attempt to continue tackling the pandemic in Africa. The other centres are the Kwazulu-Natal Innovation and Sequencing Platform and The African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) in Nigeria.
In a WHO online article Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa stated being able to not only track its evolution but also assess the possible mutation of the virus is crucial to mounting an effective response. 

“Through this new laboratory network dedicated to genome sequencing we can better develop vaccines and treatment programmes which are tailored to Africans and eventually bring COVID-19 under control,” said Dr Moeti.

Ongoing sequencing is already providing crucial information for determining the type of SARS-CoV-2 lineage circulating in some countries. It has shown that most SARS-CoV-2 genomes circulating in Africa are assigned to the B.1 lineage which emerged from the epidemic in Europe.

In Africa, 10 lineages have been identified and more than 80,000 sequences have been produced globally.  Grouping viruses from different countries into the same lineage or sub-lineage has indicated a linkage or importation of viruses between countries. Countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Africa are experiencing localised transmission, while there is also importation of cases in the DRC from Ghana, Morocco and Senegal.

The sequencing and reference laboratory network as proposed by the WHO and Africa CDC underpins other initiatives in Africa such as the launch of the Africa CDC’s Institute for Pathogen Genomics.

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