Serbia's genome center monitors potential virus mutations to facilitate more effective COVID-19 control

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In partnership with BGI Genomics from China, Serbia's first genome sequencing center, opened in December 2021, is monitoring potential virus mutations to facilitate more effective COVID-19 control and accelerating access to genomics to enhance health outcomes.

The Serbian Genome Sequencing and Bio-informatics Center, located within the Institute of Molecular Genetics and Genetic Engineering (IMGGE), seeks to develop and enhance its genomic analysis, whole exome sequencing (WES) and whole genome sequencing (WGS) capabilities. Serbia has invested in the construction and infrastructure of this Center while BGI Genomics has donated equipment such as a genomic sequencer and sent a team of five Chinese technical experts to train their Serbian counterparts over eight months.

This Center is actively following any new variants of COVID-19 which appear in Serbia, without reliance on overseas laboratories. Genomic sequencing of new variants can be completed within 48 hours, which is important for treatment of coronavirus patients and undertake more effective public health measures.

In addition to a COVID-19 sequencing line, there are three other sequencing product lines in the Center. One of these product lines focuses on prenatal diagnostics which facilitates DNA-based non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) – which involves comprehensive screening for fetal aneuploidy, a condition where the fetus has one or more extra or missing chromosomes, twin pregnancy, and pregnancies with a history of trisomy, or in-vitro fertilization.

On July 12, 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) indicated that new waves demonstrate the COVID-19 pandemic "is nowhere near over". On the same day, the WHO Science Council released its inaugural report urging countries to scale up genomic sequencing to enhance health outcomes.

The Serbian Genome Sequencing and Bio-informatics Center performs a dual role of epidemic prevention while accelerating access to genomics. In particular, the Center's operations are aligned with the four themes covered in the WHO Science Council's report:

- Advocacy: Persuade relevant stakeholders about the medical, scientific, and economic benefits of genomic technologies;

- Implementation: Expanded training of essential personnel, and the low-cost provision of instruments, materials, and computational infrastructure;

- Collaboration: Agencies, academia and industry should collaborate to use genomics to build and expand scientific capabilities;

- Ethical, legal and social issues: Effective oversight and compliance with international rules and standards, is key to promoting responsible sharing of information.

The IMGGE and BGI Genomics had earlier signed a data security agreement to commit to the protection of data and privacy in the Center's work.

This Center will be of great assistance for basic science and scientific applications particularly in medicine for diagnostics, prognostics, new drug development, as well as agriculture, to contribute to the economic development of the country."

Dr Jelena Begovic, Director, Serbian Genome Sequencing and Bio-informatics Center

Dr Jelena Begovic adds, "We are working closely with stakeholders from various fields, to provide affordable, secure and ethical access to this technology. I also hope that we will continue to collaborate more deeply with BGI in the development of the BIO4 campus in Belgrade."

As Dr. Yin Ye, BGI Group CEO, mentioned at the opening ceremony of the Center, BGI will continue to support scientific research and industrial development to improve Serbia's health outcomes and well-being. Grace Xu, BGI Genomics Field Applications Support engineer and project leader, remarked, "Our Serbian colleagues have been extremely professional and asked many good questions. Through constant communication, they have made great strides in genome sequencing capabilities, and we have also learnt a lot from them as well."


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