How Duke researchers are guiding the University’s COVID-19 policies


Duke researchers are using genome sequencing to analyze the genetic makeup of SARS-Cov-2 for specific mutations and variants. The relevant findings guided the Duke administration in developing the University’s COVID-19 policies.

The Wray laboratory conducts research on the evolution of transcriptional regulation. Alejandro Berrio Escobar, a researcher at the Wray lab, said he developed an interest in learning more about the genetic makeup of the COVID-19 virus at the start of the lockdown.

To find mutations and identify variants in the virus, “the RNA molecules [are] virus extract [and] every sample is sent to a sequencing facility,” said Berrio Escobar. The digitized sequence “can be analyzed using computer programming”.

Sequencing the COVID-19 virus genome was a huge undertaking, but the research team uncovered important findings as a result. They found three or four regions that explain how the virus affects humans, according to Berrio Escobar.

Berrio Escobar meets weekly with University administrators to advise on the implementation of campus-wide guidelines regarding the COVID-19 virus.

“I provide the report and help to determine if there is a variant that concerns the population and the communities around us,” said Berrio Escobar.

Paul Grantham, assistant vice president of communications services, explained that the University administration considers the effects of the virus in a wide range.

“We monitor and follow the latest trends from around the world, across the country and closer to home,” he wrote. “Often new variants will emerge and cause outbreaks in other countries before they reach the United States, so we can anticipate and prepare for how we may need to adjust our policies and guidance in advance. .”

Many COVID-19 policies on campus have been guided by the research team’s findings. Researchers supported in-person classes for the 2022-2023 academic year despite previous increases in cases at the start of the academic year as infections were trace interactions that occur outside of the classroom.

With the reduction in the risk of COVID-19 and the increase in vaccinations, the conversations between researchers and administrators have evolved. Routine surveillance testing and contact tracing are no longer needed, as confirmed by “monitoring data and understanding changing risk factors,” Grantham wrote.

More recently, Berrio Escobar’s research helped shape the decision to make masks optional in classrooms starting September 22, based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s community risk factor for Durham.

“It is still early days, but we have yet to see any increase in cases linked to the easing of the mask requirement in classrooms at the end of September,” Grantham wrote.

Berrio Escobar noted that the masking policy is subject to change if a new, higher-risk variant emerges and efforts must be made to protect the communities of Duke and Durham.

“We live, work and study in the greater community of Durham, so our assessment and recommendations are made within that context,” Grantham said.

The research team is still sequencing ongoing cases from campus and Duke Hospital. Berrio Escobar pointed out that with a better understanding of the virus, the possibility of new variants still exists.


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