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Delays and types of testing impacting COVID-19 variant tracking

Published: Dec. 3, 2021 at 3:36 PM EST
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Researchers at the University of Virginia are tracking the omicron variant of COVID-19, but there are some concerns about how fast the search is going.

One doctor says data collection is running behind.

Doctor Amy Mathers coordinates genomic sequencing through UVA’s labs, which pinpoints variants in positive COVID-19 test. Mathers says doing that takes time, causing a lag in variant tracking.

“The public health effort for sequencing is reliant on labs finding positives, batching them up, labeling them, and getting them sent to the state. So that’s a lag, because they do it in batches just because it’s a practical matter,” Mathers said.

Those batches of tests come to the labs two to three times a week. Sequencing tests takes anywhere from 18-36 hours.

“Sometimes we’re running 10 to 14 days behind what was last positive,” Mathers said. “We’re just getting through November late teens to early 20s. We’re not getting something that came on December 3.”

In Virginia, 1,400 sequences a week is what is predicted to capture any new variant, Mathers said.

UVA is contributing about 250-300 sequences a week, but can only sequence what tests positive through PCR tests.

“One of the issues that we’re going to have with emergence and enough testing is that you really have to run a PCR test. So at-home antigen testing, which I know is one of the pushes, will detect new cases, but those positives obviously wouldn’t be available for fun genome sequencing,” she said.

But there is a way to fast-track sequencing to find a variant, if needed: “If I get a call from the health department or there’s somebody identified who traveled or who has a risk factor, then I put it at the front of the line and get it sequenced quickly,” Mathers said.

Dr. Mathers and other infectious disease experts with UVA say if you show any symptoms of COVID-19, get a test as soon as possible.

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