How the state is tracking the COVID-19 variants

Published: Jan. 28, 2021 at 7:50 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - There is now at least one case of the COVID-19 variant that originated in the United Kingdom in Alaska. The state said the race to vaccinate is heightened as they work on keeping track of these new variants.

The U.K. variant is called B.1.1.7, and it is not the only variant being discovered worldwide. Dr. Joe McLaughlin, a state epidemiologist, said there are a growing number of them, but the variants discovered in the U.K., Brazil and South Africa are the most concerning.

Dr. Jayme Parker of the Fairbanks Public Laboratory said they track these variants by going through a process called sequencing. They closely analyze the genetic makeup of coronavirus specimen data and look for parts that are different than the predominant strain in the U.S.

The state reported that the recently discovered case tested positive for COVID-19 in December. Parker said the sequencing process is time consuming.

“We’ll pick out 96 specimen that we think have high possibilities to be variant, and we’re also looking at all the viruses that are circulating in rural Alaska. So we’ll group them all into one pool and that takes about 10 to 15 hours to get all that labor, and we do that in a single day. And then it actually runs on the sequencer for three days to get all of the information from those specimens. And then we need about a day to look through all that data and it does generate just gigabytes of data for us to look at,” Parker explained.

Parker said they have been looking for variants since April, but have been focusing on samples from December lately. Now, they are ramping up efforts for more sequencing statewide.

They’re getting help from labs across the state. At Alaska Native Medical Center, Lab Medical Director Dr. James Tiesinga said they are constantly sending samples to the reference laboratories and the state for sequencing. The hospital puts out about 2,500 tests a day.

Tiesinga said not all tests are affected by the variants, but some brands of tests can be helpful in identifying the variant strains in cases.

He explained that some tests don’t just look for a positive and negative. Some test for certain parts of the coronavirus, like the S gene that drops out of the U.K. variant. He used the Mesa Biotech, Linea and TaqPath test brands as an example.

“These three tests are perfectly able to identify the SARS-Cov-2 virus, including variants that we know of,” he said. “But the profile of detection with two parts positive, and the S part negative allows the laboratory to say, ‘wait a minute. I think this is a variant.’”

Tiesinga continued to say that ANMC does not have tests that test for the S gene, but some labs in the state do.

While more is learned about the variants, state health leaders are strongly encouraging people to continue to practice mitigation techniques.

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