Scientists track COVID-19 variants in Virginia

Posted at 4:51 PM, Apr 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-06 10:36:54-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia's state laboratory said it will be increasing its capacity to track variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 as the variants continue to appear and spread around the world -- including here in Virginia.

The work has taken place at the Department of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) in downtown Richmond since March 2020 through genome sequencing of samples from positive tests around the state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there are five variants of concern -- four of which have been found in Virginia.

"The variant first identified in the [United Kingdom], the B.1.17 variant, seems to be more predominant among all of the variants of concern," said DCLS Lead Scientist Dr. Lauren Turner. The other three variants are B.1.427 and B.1.429 (both first discovered in California) and B.1.351 (first discovered in South Africa).

The variants spread more easily than the original virus -- giving their work added significance as the state works distribute the vaccine and reach herd immunity.

"We're in a race to get people vaccinated, so they don't fall victim to the variants," said State Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver at a news conference on March 23. "The longer that the virus is around and able to mutate -- the danger is, of course, it will happen upon a variant that is, in fact, more dangerous. So, once again, [I'm] encouraging everyone when your opportunity becomes available to get vaccinated to do so."

The lab currently analyzes around 150 samples per week, but Turner said that will soon be increasing.

"We have received funding from the federal government during this pandemic, to increase our capacity for SARS-CoV-2 sequencing. So, we already have on-site some additional instrumentation that should bring us to at least 200 samples a week within the next few weeks," said Turner. "And have received additional funding that will allow us to buy more instruments, which will bring our total capacity closer to 400 samples per week."

Officials added, much like how COVID testing initially started at DCLS and then expanded to partners like private labs and universities, they plan to take a similar approach to increase sequencing capacity in the state.

With the capacity they do have, Turner says they focus on several scenarios.

"That might include outbreak investigations. So, trying to figure out if there are variants that are specific to outbreaks," added Turner. "It can also include looking at patients that are experiencing reinfection -- where they had an initial infectious episode and, more than 90 days later, they appear to have another SARS-CoV-2 infection, which could indicate that there are significant mutations in the virus."

Turner said they are also examining cases where people have been fully vaccinated against the virus still get infected. Something called vaccine breakthrough.

The findings are passed on at both the federal and state level -- with the latter using the information to help prioritize contact tracing and quarantining active cases.

"Those have real impacts downstream because with the variants that transmit a lot faster than the other ones, if there's a higher transmission you want to be able to make sure that you're stopping those viruses from spreading as much as possible," said DCLS Lead Scientist Logan Fink. "And so, that's what we're trying to do."

Turner added that while there is concern about the variants, the same safety measures that the CDC and VDH have been promoting throughout the pandemic should continued to be followed.

"Hand washing, wearing your masks, physically distancing, monitoring symptoms," said Turner. "Do all of those measures we will continue to have control over the spread of disease or have better control."