Texas labs ramp up sequencing as omicron variant spreads across nation

Labs across Texas are preparing to do more testing as the new omicron variant spreads through the United States.

The omicron variant has been detected in at least 18 states, from Hawaii and California to New York and Massachusetts – and as of Monday evening, Texas. 

Delta remains the dominant variant in North Texas, but experts say it is only a matter of time before omicron is detected in the region as well.

"The doubling rate for delta was about 11 days and the doubling rate for omicron looks like it's about four or five days. So we do have preliminary evidence, at least in South Africa, that omicron is highly transmissible," said Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas.

Labs across the country and in Texas are working to find additional cases. So far, omicron has far more mutations than delta, which could enhance its ability to cause infection.

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"Omicron has really caught our attention because of the 32 mutations on the spike protein," Jetelina said.

The state health department has partnered with the UT School of Public Health to increase sequencing statewide by at least 25 percent. Nationwide, about one in every seven positive COVID-19 cases is getting sequenced to find any possible omicron cases. 

"Our genomic surveillance system is not the best on a national level. We're ranked about 20th in the world, but it's getting better with time," Jetelina said.

She says only about three percent of cases in Texas are getting sequenced, but the state is continuing to widen that effort.

"You need to increase the number of tests that get sent to these labs, but also improve the capacity of these labs. To do this genomic surveillance, it takes a lot of time equipment, people. And so ramping that up will take time," Jetelina said.

UT Southwestern, which sequences local COVID-19 cases, says delta continues to be in 100 percent of all samples.

"The key, though, is watching how omicron spreads in a place that already has lots of delta. For example, in South Africa, there wasn't much delta there for omicron to push away. And so really, which one out competes?" Jetelina said. 


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