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AAU researchers play crucial role in covid-19 sequencing

When the corona virus made its grand entrance into the world in early 2020, researchers all over the world quickly turned their attention to working on projects that could help in the fight against the virus. One was Professor Mads Albertsen at the Department of Chemistry and Bioscience, whose research group now play a crucial role in tracking down new mutations of the virus – not just in Denmark but at a global scale.

In early 2020, Mads Albertsen and his research group were deep into the extensive research project ‘Microflora Danica’, funded by the Poul Due Jensen Foundation, whose aim is to map the entire microbiome (such as bacteria) of Denmark through advanced genetic sequencing.

“We quickly saw the potential of using our world-class laboratory and sequencing methods for a fast, efficient genetic sequencing of the COVID-19 virus. Following a quick accept from the Foundation, we entered into a collaboration with some of the Danish hospitals and the State Serum Institute and started working on transferring our efforts onto sequencing positive COVID-19 tests to identify new variants of the virus,” Mads Albertsen explains.

In the spring of 2020, the researchers sequenced between 100 and 200 samples per week. A year later, the number is 1,000-1,500 a day, and the group has been central to the identification and tracking of the mink-related variants in the fall of 2020 (including providing data that led to the quick reopening of North Denmark in November 2020) and in the focused efforts to track the spread of the variants of concern B.1.1.7, B.1.351 and P.1 in Danish society.

At the beginning, we had to adapt our lab protocols to fit virus sequencing instead of bacteria, but we managed that fairly quickly using open source protocols from the international research community

Mads Albertsen

Since then, it has been a matter of establishing a smooth system of getting the genetic material from the positive tests to our lab here, bringing in more people along the way to perform the sequencing, and communicating the results to SSI. At the start of 2021, we had a team of 10-15 researchers, PhD students and laboratory engineers working on that here in Aalborg,” Mads Albertsen explains.

Handing over the work to the hospitals and the state serum institute

Alongside managing the daily work in the lab in Aalborg, Mads Albertsen has become a sought-after spokesperson in the media on the Danish sequencing efforts. In addition, he has headed the task of training hospital staff to take over the sequencing work from the start of 2021. “In essence, I have put my research on hold to focus on management, coordination, communication and training tasks to get the work into gear and providing the authorities with the best data possible as fast as possible. It has been a quite different role than usual, but also an incredibly rewarding one.

We are now ready to transfer the responsibility of the sequencing efforts to SSI and the hospitals, as staff and labs are ready at local hospitals around the country, and I am looking forward to getting my hands into my own research projects again,” Mads Albertsen says and finishes: “At this point, Denmark is one of the leading countries on a global scale in terms of testing and sequencing, and we are in the Top 20 regarding vaccinating. The joint efforts across the country to reach this point have been amazing. We have had a chance to show what we can do when we focus our manpower and our advanced laboratories on a joint project, and by this we have helped not just Denmark but the entire global society.”