In a race between COVID variants & vaccines, Virginia’s lab is ramping up resources

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Experts say a safe reopening in Virginia hinges on a race between COVID-19 variants and vaccines. The state is working to ramp up resources to track these new strains but challenges remain.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now following five “variants of concern.” Two strains originating from California were added to the list just this week.

Compared to the coronavirus first detected in China, the CDC says these variants have mutations that may cause more severe disease, increase transmission, require different treatment approaches or reduce the efficacy of vaccines.

Data analysts advising Gov. Ralph Northam’s Administration say B.1.1.7–a variant first detected in the United Kingdom–is on track to become the dominate strain in Virginia by the end of March.

What that means still isn’t quite clear.

“If Virginians relax their behavior as new variants take hold, the summer could bring another peak about as high as what we saw at the beginning of this year,” researchers wrote in their latest update. “To avoid another peak, we must give vaccines time to have an impact, especially as new variants become more prevalent across the nation.”

According to a CDC database, at least 49 coronavirus cases have been caused by the U.K. variant in Virginia so far and 20 cases have been linked to a strain out of South Africa.

Logan Fink, a lead scientist with Virginia’s Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS), is part of an international data-collection coalition that’s trying to keep variants under control.

“Right now we are in a race between variants and vaccines. We want to get enough people vaccinated to prevent the spread but, if it is spreading faster, than that hinders our efforts and makes this pandemic go on a little bit longer,” Fink said.

DCLS Director Dr. Denise Toney said the state lab was one of the first in the nation to begin sequencing the virus back in March 2020, when much of the focus was on ramping up coronavirus testing. Back then, she said variants weren’t widely acknowledged as a concern but the early start is proving beneficial.

“This allowed us to identify mutations more quickly because we had data to compare it to,” Toney said. “We acknowledge that we’re seeing an increase in the variants in our community and there is a great desire to have more and more tracking of these variants.”

DCLS Lead Scientist Dr. Lauren Turner said the state lab is currently prioritizing the sequencing of samples linked to outbreaks, travel, abnormally severe symptoms, a second infection or cases that occur after vaccination.

Turner said, at the start of the pandemic, they were sequencing about 150-200 samples per month. Currently, she estimates 400-600 samples are being processed monthly.

“Because of the emergence of these variants and the significance of these variants, we are further increasing capacity with a new goal of somewhere between 1,000 and 1,600 samples per month,” Turner said. “We anticipate that capacity to be in place probably about six months from now.” 

Toney said they’re in the process of hiring additional staff and ordering new automated equipment that will allow the lab to meet that goal.

However, Toney said they’re running into familiar problems that initially slowed the state’s push to increase testing.

“I think the challenge is in the ability to get the equipment quickly. We have placed orders but a lot of states are trying to purchase similar instrumentation,” Toney said. “Big picture, one of the things that we need to recognize is it is so important to invest in public health.”

In the meantime, Fink said Virginians should continue to practice the same prevention strategies that have gotten us to this point: wash your hands, wear a mask, keep your distance and get vaccinated when it’s your turn.

“The measures that have been put in place to curb the spread of this virus, in general,are still effective against the variants,” Fink said.

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