DC’s forensic lab keeps looking for coronavirus variants

Health officials are finding more and more cases of the omicron variant here in the U.S., including several cases found in Maryland.

The D.C. forensic lab is responsible for identifying variants within the city and even finding new ones that may spread.

Right now, the lab sequences nearly 8% of all positive test results in the District. They field samples from hospitals, nursing homes and clinics.

It takes about a week for the lab to fully sequence a sample Janis Doss, a PhD. bioinformatician with the lab told WTOP.

“So it’s not just throwing it on the sequencer, you have to extract the RNA, and then we convert that to DNA and then have to amplify that. And then the procedure for even preparing that to go on the machine is rather lengthy,” Doss said.

Because of the lengthy time it takes for sequencing, the information gathered can’t really help with treatment.

“So probably the person would be recovered by then,” commented Doss.

But it can lead to surveillance of the virus and help researchers develop more effective vaccines for the future.

“I think that especially if this virus becomes endemic — and is just going to be here each year — we’re going to really rely heavily on sequencing data for determining what the vaccines should look like,” said Doss.

Her colleague Scott Nguyen said sequencing is also a key factor in virus surveillance and development.

“So with sequencing, we actually see variants that are starting to spread around more efficiently at certain locations, and maybe that serves as a warning signal to either other countries or other regions. Like hey — be aware that there might be a more infectious variant coming your way,” said Nguyen.

Much like South African health officials raising the red flag for the Omicron variant.

While the variant has made headlines in recent weeks, the delta variant remains the dominant strain in the U.S.

It is not known if the omicron variant is more infectious or more deadly. Very early data suggest that reinfections with people who already had COVID-19 are more likely.

A South African physician, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who first spotted the variant told the BBC last week that symptoms in most patients appear to be “extremely mild.”

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Luke Lukert

Since joining WTOP Luke Lukert has held just about every job in the newsroom from producer to web writer and now he works as a full-time reporter. He is an avid fan of UGA football. Go Dawgs!

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