More testing needed to better understand how widespread COVID-19 variants are, officials say

Capitol Report

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — After state health officials reported the first identified case of the UK variant of COVID-19 in North Carolina over the weekend, managers of the lab that made that identification say more testing needs to be done to better understand how widespread the variants are.

Steve Hoover, vice president of lab operations at MAKO Medical, said getting a better understanding of the variants is key as public health officials make decisions about managing the pandemic in the coming months.

“There’s not a lot of this data out there. So, it’s probably a little more prevalent than we’re seeing right now. You just don’t have the testing capability to ID all of those,” Hoover said. “Really, for us, it’s about compiling that data and having useful data for state health departments, CDC, vaccine manufacturers, wherever this may go.”

As an example, he said his lab receives about 200,000 samples to test each week. Of those, around 20,000 are positive. Among the positive samples, he said they can do genetic sequencing on only about 50 to 100.

The CDC has reported 195 cases of the UK variant, B.1.1.7. MAKO Medical has identified 25 cases of the variant nationwide. 

“It’s an expensive process. There’s no way you could sit there and sequence all your samples. It would be very costly. So, for us, we’re hoping there’s some funding that’s gonna be going into the sequencing part because I think there’s a lot to learn if we can mass-sequence,” he said. “I think the sequencing data is going to become more and more important as we continue on in being able to get that data in the correct hands.”

Hoover said his lab has not identified any cases of variants from Denmark or South Africa. On Monday, Moderna said it’s working on a booster for its vaccine to try to provide better protection against the South African variant.

In announcing the case of the UK variant in Mecklenburg County this weekend, state health officials said they’re concerned because “early data suggest that this variant may be more contagious than other variants.”

Dr. Dirk Dittmer, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UNC-Chapel Hill, said his lab is also tracking new variants of the virus.

“It does not impact your disease or how you treat it. It helps us predict the future at this point,” Dr. Dittmer recently told CBS 17.

He noted the progress starting to be seen on some of the COVID-19 metrics.

“It’s starting to go down a tiny bit, but if that new variant comes and becomes more transmissible, it will prolong the peak,” he said.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Fox News over the weekend that her agency is “scaling up both our surveillance of (variants) and our study of these.”

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