Before the pandemic, most people had never heard of Illumina, the California-based sequencing behemoth whose machines generate upwards of 90% of the world’s DNA data. And while Illumina might still not be a household name, over the last 15 months the technology it sells has become standard dinner table fare. Genetic vaccines, coronavirus variants, wastewater surveillance — never before has the world of sequencing spilled over so forcefully into mainstream public consciousness.
“People are talking about mutations and variants, it’s now become part of the public lexicon,” said CEO Francis deSouza said Tuesday at the STAT Health Tech Summit. “I think it’s accelerated the field by maybe five years, because genomics has been instrumental in this pandemic from the very beginning.”
In December 2019, Illumina teams were called into Wuhan to help local authorities identify the source of the outbreak of a mysterious pneumonia, said deSouza. From there, samples were sent to Shanghai, where Illumina’s scientists worked with researchers there to sequence and publish the first viral genome in early January. The next day, Moderna and BioNTech began using that genetic blueprint to start developing Covid-19 vaccines.