Inside the lab: Your COVID-19 PCR test could help health officials monitor virus mutations

Local News

TAYLORSVILLE, Utah (ABC4) – COVID-19 has infected more than 400,000 Utahns since the virus was first detected last March. Many of those cases have been sequenced at the state’s COVID-19 testing labs to monitor if and how the virus mutates.

“At the beginning, there weren’t variants of concern, it was just the virus. What we were using it for then was more for looking for outbreaks,” said Kelly Oakeson, the chief scientist of bioinformatics and next-generation sequencing at the Utah Public Health Laboratory.

Inside the lab, Oakeson said scientists have spent more than a year now sequencing positive COVID-19 cases from PCR tests.

“That’s gonna be about 50% of the positive cases in Utah, and of that, we’re sequencing close to 70% to 75% of those,” he said.

At the height of the pandemic, Oakeson said 10% of all positive cases – statewide – were sent to the lab for genetic sequencing.

“If we can track and look at how that code changes overtime, and how it changes and is linked to something being more transmissible, we can then look for other variants of the virus out there,” Oakeson said.

While cases are trending down, experts continue to study the virus’ genetic footprint.

“Our goal is to sequence as many of the positives as we can in Utah. If we can do all of them, great, I wanna do all of them,” Oakeson said. “We want to keep the surveillance up, we want to know what the virus is doing.”

Public health experts are keeping a close tab on what the virus is doing, and as variants of concern (which are highly transmissible) mutate.

“We’re seeing the Alpha variant start to decrease in percentage, and we’re seeing it start to be replaced by the Delta variant,” Oakeson said.

Genetic sequencing was used pre-COVID, but not to the same level. Even past the COVID-19 pandemic, Oakeson said experts hope to study other infectious diseases.

“It’s not just good for SARS-COVID-2, it’s good for any other virus that might arise, or any other bacterial pathogens that might arise,” he said.

While six variants are of concern to public health officials, Oakeson said all three COVID-19 vaccines have proven effective against them.

“Whether it be Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, it works for all of those,” he said.

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