Here’s what Virginia is doing to detect COVID-19 variants

An artist's rendering of COVID-19 cells.
An artist's rendering of COVID-19 cells.(NBC)
Updated: Mar. 8, 2021 at 8:12 PM EST
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Detecting and countering COVID-19 variants will be key to moving past the pandemic. Some of the hard work is being done in Virginia. As more and more people get vaccinated, researchers are screening thousands of infected samples looking for signs of mutations.

The process is called genomic sequencing. According to Dr. William Petri, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Virginia, researchers are analyzing randomized samples at a lab in Richmond right now.

“It’s actually kind of hard, because you have to sequence the virus, and the virus has 30,000 bases in it,” Petri said. “What the state of Virginia is doing right now is they’re taking sort of systematic sampling. So, there’ll be over 100 viruses that will be sequenced each week now in the state.”

That joins a larger surveillance effort underway on a global scale.

“The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is doing the same thing in Atlanta,” Petri said. “The CDC is organizing like an international consortia so that people can compare virus sequences, you know, across countries, and different states in the U.S.”

One silver lining is already clear: COVID-19 mutates slowly, compared to other viruses. That’s due largely to its size.

“COVID virus is an enormous RNA virus, three times bigger than influenza, three times bigger than HIV,” Petri explained. “So, it cannot mutate as rapidly as those viruses do, because any single mutation can ruin the whole virus.”

Another early positive sign: as COVID-19 variants pop up across the globe, so far the mutations are similar, through a process known as convergent evolution. The dominant variants have all adopted the same trait that makes it easier for them to reproduce, despite developing on different continents.

“Each of these variants has figured out that it’s a good thing to bind tighter to the human receptor,” Petri said. “They’ve all acquired the same single amino acid chain through just different you know, evolution in South Africa, Brazil, in the UK.”

That’s good, because the vaccines in use in the U.S. appear to work against those variants. Even if a new mutation is harder to treat with existing vaccines, their template will speed up production of replacements.

“They can swap out the spike mRNA from the current variant and put in a new one,” Petri explained. “That’s not terribly difficult to do, it’s something that can be done over a few months time.”

The easiest way to keep new variants from developing is following COVID-19 safety and prevention measures that are already in place. Viruses require hosts to mutate, which is why Dr. Petri says wearing masks, social distancing, and getting a vaccine when it’s your turn is the key to keep new, more dangerous mutations at bay.

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