A Silicon Valley-based start-up is in talks with Chinese officials to help the country fight the spread of a deadly new coronavirus, which has taken 638 lives and infected more than 31,400 globally as of Friday.
Biotech company GenapSys was contacted by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Jan 29 to provide help fighting the epidemic, according to a spokesman.
“GenapSys is still in early-stage discussion with the Chinese CDC on how to most effectively fight the outbreak”, the spokesman said. “Working directly with any foreign government is tricky, so the company is making sure to stay compliant with all international laws and regulations.” The Chinese CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
GenapSys claims that its iPad-sized gene sequencer, launched last year in the US, is 100 times smaller than traditional gene sequencers on the market. The sequencer is small enough to be easily deployed at hospitals, airports and public transportation hubs for quick results on virus samples, making it “perfectly adapted” for crisis situations, it said.
“In the case of this coronavirus, for example, you can put one thousand of these machines in different parts of a city and screen different patients without moving the samples,” founder and CEO Hesaam Esfandyarpour said in a video interview, adding that it is “very risky to move samples that can cause contamination”.
Genetic sequencing can provide a more complete understanding of viruses, helping public health officials and researchers track their evolution, develop vaccines and come up with control strategies.
Public health professionals in China and around the world are currently racing to develop vaccines and treatments for the novel coronavirus. Scientists from Australia, Japan and Singapore have cultured the virus in a lab to research new diagnostic methods, monitor any signs of mutation, and test potential vaccines and drugs.
China’s CDC researchers have also isolated strains of the virus to develop a potential vaccine, according to state media, while tech giants Alibaba and Baidu are sharing their genome research capabilities with scientists and research institutions to help speed up efforts.
Market leader Illumina, which claims to generate 90 per cent of the world’s genetic sequencing data for lab diagnostics, also announced last month that its technology was used to help map out the new coronavirus’ genetic sequence, providing detailed information that enabled public health officials to respond with “unprecedented speed and breadth”. Illumina did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Currently, genetic sequencing is mostly done in big centralised labs where Illumina’s machines – which can cost nearly US$1 million (S$1.4 million) – dominate. Illumina unveiled cheaper, desktop-sized genetic sequencers in early 2018 with a price tag of US$20,000.
GenapSys, however, is hoping to make the technology even more accessible to individual researchers and small laboratories – it is priced at US$10,000 in the US and aims to offer it at a similar cost in other countries including South Korea, Singapore and Japan.
This could enable thousands more researchers and laboratories to own sequencers, contributing to the medical community’s understanding of both the coronavirus outbreak and other diseases including cancer, according to Shi Yongyong, who is a professor at the School of Life Sciences and Biotechnology at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and research collaborator at the Mayo Clinic.
“During an outbreak like what we’re seeing with the coronavirus, researchers and health officials need to access genetic insights as quickly as possible,” said Shi, an early GenapSys customer.
GenapSys, founded in 2010, recently raised another US$75 million in financing from US-based financial services firm Oxford Finance, bringing the biotech company’s total funding up to US$241 million.
The fresh funds will be used for global expansion as well as to support innovative research and development in the field of genetic sequencing, Esfandyarpour said.
The 37-year-old said it took him 15 years of hard work before he got to this point.
“There have been many times that I came to the brink of wanting to give up,” he said in the interview. “[But] to even think that my innovation and products could save one life, whether it saves a child from cancer or a grandmother from an infectious disease, that thought is what keeps me going through the hard times.”
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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.