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As another new COVID-19 variant looms, Michigan labs are better prepared

3D rendering of the coronavirus
World Health Organization
3D rendering of the coronavirus

The state of Michigan has rechecked tens of thousands of samples of COVID-19 collected in the state. And so far there’s no sign of the new omicron variant.

That’s as scientists in Ottawa, Canada said this week they identified the first cases of the variant in North America.

The World Health Organization labeled omicron a “variant of concern” last week, saying it has a number of mutations that could make it more transmissible than previous coronavirus variants.

Many questions about the new variant remain unanswered, but scientists in Michigan say they’re better positioned to identify omicron if it arrives in Michigan soon. That’s even though the state is already in the middle of a surge of cases from the delta COVID variant.

"[I]f omicron came into a testing site at Michigan Medicine, I think we would find it in a reasonable amount of time."
Dr. Adam Lauring, University of Michigan

Dr. Adam Lauring runs a lab at Michigan Medicine that sequences the genomes of hundreds of positive COVID samples every week. It's a fraction of the total positive cases in the state, but he says it's more than before.

“We’re still sequencing everything that comes in,” Lauring says of his lab. “And so, you know I think if omicron came into a testing site at Michigan Medicine, I think we would find it in a reasonable amount of time.”

Lauring says his lab is able to process about 600 samples per week, more than double what it could do in January.

Identifying new variants is not so simple as just getting a positive COVID test result. To determine which version of the virus is in the sample, labs decode its genetic structure, a process known as genomic sequencing. Lauring’s lab at Michigan Medicine is one of the two main labs in the state that do genomic sequencing on the COVID-19 virus. The lab operated by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has a larger capacity for sequencing, and collects samples from the entire state.

In a statement this week, MDHHS said it has “re-analyzed” the sequencing data from 31,000 positive COVID samples taken in the state, and so far zero are of the new omicron variant. For now, the delta variant is by far the dominant version of the virus circulating in Michigan.

But public health experts still aren’t counting out omicron.

“I always think that we’re behind with our surveillance,” says Adam London, the health officer for Kent County, who spoke Tuesday on Stateside. “Transportation and commerce is so fast worldwide now that it’s very easy for things to spread quickly. So I’d be very surprised if that variant isn’t already here in the United States in one way or another.”

So far, there are many unanswered questions about the omicron variant. Early signs suggest it may be more transmissible than the delta variant, but it’s not clear yet whether vaccines are effective against it, or if it affects people as severely as previous variants. For now, public health leaders in Michigan are simply urging that people take the usual precautions, and that still includes vaccinations. While the vaccines’ effectiveness against omicron is a question mark, the vaccines show clear effectiveness against the delta variant that’s currently raging across the state. Even as hospitals report more COVID-19 patients than at any time since the spring of 2020, the vast majority of those hospitalized are unvaccinated.

"Ensuring that as many Michiganders as possible are vaccinated remains the best protection we have against COVID-19 - including variants of concern." said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan's chief medical executive, in a statement issued by MDHHS this week. "We are asking Michiganders to continue to use critical mitigation measures, such as getting vaccinated and getting boosters when eligible, wearing a mask, and getting tested regularly. Increased transmission fuels the development of more variants of concern."

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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