Researchers ramp up COVID-19 variant tracking efforts in Arizona

Published: Feb. 24, 2021 at 12:12 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) -It’s an invisible race: health officials are scrambling to build immunity as new strains of COVID-19 try to take hold. That’s why important work is being done to track virus variants in Arizona.

As the director of the infectious disease branch at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), Dr. David Engelthaler is part of those efforts.

“The SARS-CoV-2 virus has an RNA genome,” he said. “That’s the genetic blueprint of the virus. So, we use special techniques to spell out every individual letter of that blueprint – that’s about 30,000 letters long!”

What researchers are looking for are mutations in those letters.

“That mutation; or misspelling, could change how the virus acts,” Dr. Engelthaler said.

By mutating, the virus can become more contagious, allowing it to invade more bodies. However, Dr. Engelthaler says mutations rarely make it more deadly because the goal is not to kill a host, it’s to survive.

“That’s why the [coronaviruses] we have seen in humans before have all become, essentially, the common cold viruses,” he said.

To squash SARS-coV-2 before a new strain becomes dominant in Arizona, immunity is needed.

“It is definitely an evolutionary arms race,” said Dr. Engelthaler. “Even though we have had a lot of cases which is not good, there is a lot of immunity from those cases and now you have immunity from the vaccine on top of that. We may be getting close to 50% of the population with some immunity. That really helps ward off the virus. We’ve got to try to stay ahead of the virus and make sure that we are trying to get as many people vaccinated as possible so there are fewer and fewer people left that the virus can actually infect.”

TGen recently launched a dashboard to track variants. The California variant, which has already become dominant strain in California accounting for about 60% of COVID-19 cases, has popped up in Arizona. The California strain makes up about 16% of the total COVID-19 samples sent to TGen and university laboratories. The UK variant makes up less than 1%.

Dr. Engelthaler says the good news is the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines seem to provide some protection against the new strains.

“One of the great things about this new vaccine technology that’s being used; this mRNA vaccine, is that it gives a really robust response from the human immune system,” he said. “The way this vaccine is developed, it has a really significant piece of the genetic material for the spiked protein. Then, you get a lot of different antibodies responding to it. So, even if one mutation means some antibodies won’t respond, you still have all these other antibodies responding.”

Since TGen is a nonprofit, variant tracking efforts are funded by the State of Arizona and the CDC. Right now, TGen receives about 1,200 COVID-19 samples each week. However, the goal is to study all positive tests in Arizona soon.

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