A University of Central Florida infectious-disease epidemiologist is working with The Rockefeller Foundation and the University of Florida on a new collaboration to strengthen the ongoing response to SARS-CoV-2.

The work could affect approaches to control the virus, such as isolation strategies and vaccine development, and establish infrastructure to respond to future emerging infectious diseases.

The project is funded by philanthropic organization The Rockefeller Foundation as part of several recently announced grants and collaborations to strengthen global capabilities to detect and respond to pandemic threats.

UCF will receive the funds in partnership with UF to become part of a U.S. Regional Accelerators for Genomic Surveillance program that will provide strategic, coordination, and operational support toward improved and diversified regional surveillance efforts across a network of institutions. These institutions include the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Louisiana State University Health Shreveport, and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

UCF and UF together will receive $340,000 for the project.

The work at UCF will be led by Taj Azarian, an assistant professor and infectious-disease epidemiologist in the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences. Azarian will work closely with Marco Salemi, the project’s lead at UF and a member of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute.

The Florida experts and their labs will work to establish a network of public, private, and industry partners that will strive to increase the representativeness of SARS-CoV-2 monitoring around the state, Azarian says.

They will do this by genome sequencing SARS-CoV-2 isolates from positive SARS-CoV-2 test samples taken from around Florida — with individuals’ identities redacted.

Azarian says particular interest will be placed on monitoring cases of reinfection or vaccinated cases who become sick with COVID-19. These viral isolates will be prioritized for genome sequencing, which will allow the experts to identify new variants and understand how the virus is spreading in the community, he says.

“So, let’s say someone had COVID-19 early, like last summer, and then they get tested and they’re infected again,” Azarian says. “We’re interested in tracking that and looking at the viral genomes to see how different they are from the virus that was circulating earlier when they were infected.”

“We also want to monitor cases of vaccine breakthrough,” he says. “For example, someone received a vaccine and got sick weeks later with COVID.”

“Another priority is monitoring the populations that are either unvaccinated or undervaccinated,” he says.

Knowing this information can help with vaccination and community-level control efforts, Azarian says.

“Overall, we are trying to stay one step ahead of the virus,” Azarian says.

He says the selection of UCF to work on the project was made possible by the concentrated expertise of the Genomics and Bioinformatics cluster at UCF, the collaboration with the Salemi Laboratory, and also his recent work on rapid, onsite COVID-19 detection and viral sequencing on campus through a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund II award.

“One of the things that we do in my laboratory is apply genome sequencing of pathogens to understand how they spread and transmit in the community,” he says.

“Getting funding through the university to start up our genomic surveillance on campus and do everything in-house provided a good springboard to show that we have the resources to be able to help increase the regional and national capacity to do genomic surveillance.”

Azarian received his doctorate in epidemiology from the University of Florida and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School for Public Health in the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics. He was recruited to UCF through the Genomics and Bioinformatics Cluster initiative and joined UCF’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, part of UCF’s College of Medicine, in 2018.