Next Doors: The Tip of the Spear

TGen leads Arizona’s fight against COVID-19 on several fronts

So I have to admit, I was anxious to get this interview done. After all, most people don’t have the chance right now to pick the brain of someone like Dr. Jeffrey Trent, president and research director of the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) — insight that I am now able to share with you.

I mean, hey, I’m just like everyone else. Give me something to make me feel better about the COVID-19 crisis. Anything. At all. Is there any reason for optimism?

“Yeah, absolutely. I think at least we know the enemy, and we are learning more about it every day,” he said. “There’s no question that in the history of humankind, there will have never been the kind of monumental worldwide response to something. Is it happening fast enough? Absolutely not, but the remarkable focus we have on this virus is going to make a difference today and will make an even bigger difference tomorrow. I don’t underestimate the horror or tragedy of this, but am I optimistic? The answer is absolutely.”

Good to hear. I can breathe now. TGen is on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle here in the Valley, both in the community and in the research lab. So we have that going for us, and it’s significant.

Trent gave an overview of the three main focuses of the fight against the virus, and how TGen is working on each — testing, tracking and treatment.

TGen was among the first organizations in the country to receive Food and Drug Administration approval on its testing program, and its focus has been specific to individuals who are underserved or underinsured. Those include places like jails and prisons, homeless shelters — and critically, Indian reservations, which have been hard hit by the virus.

“We’re working with shelters and a lot of other places, and a lot of what we are doing is ensuring that we fill any gaps that we can,” Trent said. “We are trying to fill a niche that helps our communities more broadly.”

The step next is tracking — a critical component to being able to open Arizona back up for business. But even more than that, Trent said that TGen is working “like the of the virus” to determine its origins, how it is mutating and to map it so that treatment plans can be created.

TGen formed a partnership in early April to work with the Pathogen & Microbiome Institute at Northern Arizona University and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona to expand tracking efforts.

“We can do geotracking from where the virus originated, and that’s a really important part of what we do,” he said. “When the state lab gets a positive case, they give it to us and we sequence the whole virus. The tests they do provide a really ‘skinny’ version, which is good enough to diagnose, but we read the whole ‘War and Peace’ version, and that’s important for this kind of tracking for public health.”

And on the treatment front, TGen is working with HonorHealth on one of the first clinical trials to take place in the country on a particular combination of drugs that shows promise in battling the virus. Like some more controversial drugs, the primary drug being tested is an anti-malaria drug, but one with less significant side effects.

“This clinical trial will be the first patient that goes on this combination, and we’ll know soon how the patient will recover,” he said.

Trent said the measures Arizona has taken have worked to slow the spread of the virus — with the notable exception of the Navajo Nation, which unfortunately has become a hot spot. The Valley, however, has likely benefitted from warm weather and wide-open spaces, along with the adherence by its residents of social-distancing guidelines.

And while he doesn’t have a crystal ball, Trent said he is hopeful that summer will bring us a respite of sorts — and more time to plan.

“We are going to see if this responds the way the other coronaviruses have, that at the onset of summer we should see this dissipate,” he said. “There is likely to be a resurgence in the fall and winter, just like the flu. But the efforts to get a vaccine in place will continue and testing will be in much better shape.

Overall, while he recognized and does not downplay the horrors that have taken place due to the virus, Trent sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

“This too will pass, and we’ll have an effective vaccine, probably in a year from now — that’s what I anticipate,” he said. “I refuse to believe that there will be a dark future. Did we change after 9/11? You bet. Was it for the better? In some regards, yes, in some no. But we’ll get past this.”

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About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is Contributing Editor of Frontdoors Media and a partner at ON Advertising in Phoenix.
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