The CDC is keeping a nervous eye on COVID-19 – watching for genetic changes that could mean a more dangerous form of the coronavirus is around. The analysis is time-consuming, so scientists in Atlanta can only check a small percentage of the cases being diagnosed, but they’re getting help from Virginia.
By their very nature, viruses change to improve their chances of survival against medications and vaccinations. Scientists have identified five variants of concern that seem to spread more easily, but UVA Professor of Infectious Diseases Bill Petri says that’s a pretty small number.
“This virus, even though you hear about all these variants, is actually very genetically stable. It has a proof-reading activity that corrects errors that are made in the genome when the virus replicates. It’s almost like when you’re typing on Microsoft Word. It has a spell check, and so these mutations are very rare. It’s completely different from influenza or HIV or Hepatitis-C. Those viruses mutate so rapidly, you have to have a brand new vaccine every year. This is way, way slower than that.”
Still, there is always a risk that the next variant will not be deterred by the vaccines we’re now using to fight COVID-19.
“I think there’s a lot that keeps me from sleeping well at night,” says Denise Toney, director of Virginia’s Consolidated Laboratory Services – a four-story complex near VCU’s medical center in Richmond where 9 million tests are done each year.
“We provide laboratory testing services not only in support of public health but also provide provide services for the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Agriculture, Corrections," she says. "We really serve hundreds of state and federal agencies. We’re the go-to lab in Virginia for most testing outside of hospitals.”
Early in the pandemic, Virginia started genetically sequencing about one percent of more than 650-thousand coronavirus samples taken. About a thousand of them were classified as variants – most like the one first identified in the UK. It spreads more easily and probably causes more serious symptoms. Virginia’s lab was among the first to find it in the U.S.
“I knew that it was just a matter of time before we would see it in the Commonwealth," Toney recalls. "We definitely have a very active population with airports and travel, and so we were anticipating this would be the case.”
Like the UK variant, those first seen in Brazil, South Africa and California are more contagious, but vaccines provide protection against serious cases. Denise Toney says shots may not protect against future variants – so their arrival could prolong the pandemic, put new strains on medical services and lead to new public health restrictions to stop their spread.
“We are sequencing cases of re-infections and of vaccine failures. We should get a very quick picture if something changes and mutates with the virus.”
Eleven scientists are available 24/7 at Virginia’s main lab to sequence coronavirus, and Toney is also standing guard.
“I don’t physically come in, but I will tell you I have worked every single weekend since the pandemic started.”
Now the public can join the COVID patrol as the state’s department of health offers an online dashboard that lists variants identified in Virginia. It shows 50 people have been hospitalized with variant forms of coronavirus and five have died. Forty-four percent of those who contracted variants were under the age of 30.