Labs across US test for COVID Omicron variant

▶ Watch Video: U.S. prepares for expected imminent arrival of COVID-19 Omicron variant

Labs across the United States are testing to see where the Omicron COVID-19 variant will emerge first. The U.S. is sequencing 80,000 positive PCR tests per week to test for variants and learn how fast the variant is spreading — and how infectious it is.

About 2,000 of those sequences occur at the Pandemic Response Lab in New York City, which “CBS Mornings” lead national correspondent David Begnaud visited.

The lab is “sequencing the COVID genome of thousands of positive COVID samples,” said Jon Laurent, head of research and development at the lab.

“Our turnaround time here, once we get a sample in, is about three days,” said Laurent.

Laurent said the lab expects to finish sequencing hundreds of samples Wednesday afternoon and should know whether they have found any traces of the Omicron variant.

The testing of samples comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is increasing COVID testing for people at four of the busiest airports in the United States over concerns about the Omicron variant in travelers.

Surveillance at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and San Francisco International Airport has been expanded for specific international travel.

The CDC said it is working to modify testing requirements for travelers coming into the United States.

Right now, travelers have to be tested within 72 hours of departing. But the White House may soon announce travelers be tested one day before boarding flights regardless of their vaccine status or the state of COVID in the country where they’re coming from.

Health officials continue to stress the importance of Americans getting vaccinated against the coronavirus and receiving their booster shots. Despite the threat of Omicron, the CDC said it is prepared to “fight the variant”

“We have far more tools to fight the variant today than we had at this time last year,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

One of those tools could be an at-home antiviral pill developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics that would be prescribed to fight the worst COVID-19 symptoms.

A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel voted Tuesday to endorse the pill. The agency still needs to grant emergency use authorization.

The Delta variant remains the dominant variant and accounts for more than 99% worldwide. Laurent said it took six to eight weeks to become the majority of positive cases in New York City.

“Thinking back on that, I think it was probably six to eight weeks from the time we first sort of saw it, and then really saw it take off. It took off very quickly,” said Laurent.

He added that “it could definitely be” within a month or two before Omicron becomes the majority.

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