Virginia labs screen previous coronavirus positive tests for omicron variant

Pathologists believe it is likely a matter of time before the omicron variant of the coronavirus appears in the D.C. region, but labs across Virginia are scanning millions of previous positive tests for it.

It all depends on the new variant’s transmissibility, Dr. Amy Mathers with the University of Virginia Health Lab told WTOP.

“We don’t know if omicron is going to take off like delta did. If it does, and takes over in different areas and turns out to be much more transmissible, we will then see it in a matter of probably weeks,” Mathers said.

When her lab learned on Thanksgiving Day that omicron was detected in South Africa, she said her team at UVA’s Health Lab got to work scanning coronavirus positive tests for the variant.

“By the 27th, we were able to make sure that our process was working to capture it. And by the 29th, we had gone back through all 5,000 of the positives that we’d sequenced so far, and made sure and confirmed that we didn’t have any omicron in our collection already,” she said, noting that the lab is about 10-14 days behind and is still processing tests from mid-November.

The UVA Health lab is one of many statewide that are running surveillance using computer coding to detect the mutation.

“In Virginia, we are fortunate to have a robust genetic sequencing program to determine quickly whether variants of concern are circulating in our communities,” said Dr. Denise Toney, director of Division of Consolidated Laboratories, the state’s public health laboratory, in a statement Monday.

From a pathology perspective, Mathers said it is fascinating to watch the virus mutate in separate countries as it has the continued opportunity to spread.

“It’s convergent evolution, which is, you know the idea that, like, wings are a good idea, and birds and bats and bees all have wings, but they didn’t come by them the same, you know, evolutionary path, and that’s what we’re seeing with these viral variants as they emerge,” Mathers said.


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Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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