Qld researcher uses genes to map epidemics

·2-min read

A Queensland researcher is developing a world-leading system to model and analyse the spread of infectious diseases, such as COVID-19.

Dr Michael Meehan, from James Cook University's Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, will use genetic sequencing data to reconstruct epidemic outbreaks, to enable rapid and effective disease surveillance.

His research involves the modelling of infectious diseases to help understand transmission and to inform on prevention and control.

These models estimate several important characteristics of new and emerging infectious diseases, including the transmission rate and the period of infectiousness."

Dr Meehan said his research aimed to deliver improved intervention systems to enhance Australia's preparedness to respond to any infectious threat.

"Traditional epidemic modelling relies on standard epidemiological data, being the number of infected people through time," the Townsville-based researcher said.

"Contact tracing is done on top of that, to try and determine transmission chains."

"Most infectious diseases modelling is done at host, so the level of the human population.

"What the project we're working on is trying to do, is get down to the genetic level - so the level of the virus or bacteria itself.

"Once you get down to that level, the relatedness of the virus sample from different patients is able to give us a much better idea of transmission chain, and the amount of genetic diversity that surrounds giving us a good idea of the actual size of an outbreak, that's on top of the cases that we actually know about."

Dr Meehan says testing at a genetic level can provide an estimate of how big an outbreak actually is.

"This genetic diseases modelling allows you to infer from the samples that you have collected how many people out there are actually infected," he said.

"When you're looking at things at the genetic level, it doesn't necessarily replace contact tracing but it's certainly supplements it."

The research will use publicly-available genomic data for common pathogens including tuberculosis, influenza, and SARS-CoV-19, the virus that causes COVID-19, and will be developed into open-source software.

Dr Meehan also hopes to make modelling software widely available and adopted to relevant organisations, to enable rapid and effective disease surveillance.