UVA Health closely watching for Omicron using unique technology

Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 6:22 PM EST
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Doctors at the University of Virginia Health Center are keeping a close eye on the new COVID variant. They say the Omicron strain is not in Charlottesville yet.

UVA Health is one of the few places in the country sequencing COVID in its lab. This will tell doctors exactly when the new variant is in the area.

“We can be quite reassured that today there’s not Omicron in Charlottesville,” Dr. Bill Petri with UVA Health said. “Although, surely it is a matter of time until we begin to see some some cases here.”

When the cases do appear, UVA Health will be ahead of the game, and one of the first to know.

“Amy Mathers is sequencing every isolate from the clinical labs here at UVA,” Petri said. “So that’s really a wonderful way to have your first finger on the pulse of what’s out happening in Charlottesville, really fortunate to have her here.”

So far, all of the cases they’re seeing are still Delta. but this unique process will help differentiate between the two variants.

“What you can do is a sequencing of the virus and sequencing is not part of kind of the ordinary process of making the diagnosis,” Dr. Patrick Jackson with UVA Health said. “So it really is happening at a few centers around the world.”

The PCR tests UVA uses will also help differentiate. These will show a different pattern if a patient has the new variant.

“We’re looking at two targets when we’re doing the PCR tests, and one of those drops out with Omicron,” Jackson said. “So that’s kind of a fast and cheap way of getting a sense of what Omicron is.”

Doctors at UVA Health don’t know too much about the symptoms of Omicron yet, but they think it will be the same as what we have seen before.

“The worry is that Omicron could do to Delta, what Delta did to Alpha,” Petri said. “We might see like a new resurgence and a more infectious COVID variant in the U.S.”

They say the best thing to do right now is just get vaccinated, and get your booster.

“In South Africa, only about 20% to 30% of adults are vaccinated,” Petri said. “So it’s a different situation than in the U.S. And we know that the vaccine will provide protection against Omicron, just like it provides protection against Delta.”

They say vaccination status is what will make a difference everywhere.

“It’s really important that we roll out vaccines everywhere, because you know, the rate of vaccination in Southern Africa has a potentially a big impact on the health of people living in Charlottesville,” Jackson said.

Doctors say we will know more about this new variant and how protected we are against it in the next week or two. Vaccine companies are currently testing antibody response to see how well it fights Omicron.

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