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Two Michigan labs are actively searching for faster-spreading variant of the coronavirus


Health officials believe that if it hasn't already, a new and apparently more contagious variant of the coronavirus will soon land in Michigan. 

Two labs are on the lookout.

The state lab in Lansing and a research lab at the University of Michigan are actively sequencing genetic material from positive COVID-19 test samples to see if the variant — which was first identified in the U.K., and appears to spread more quickly — is present.

Dr. Adam Lauring, who treats and researches infectious diseases at U of M, runs the sequencing lab there.

He says other labs are interested in doing the genomic sequencing too, which would accelerate Michigan’s effort to find the new variant, also known as B.1.1.7, and strengthen its understanding of how other viral mutations are distributed across the state.

"I hope they will,” he said. “But I know, having had to surmount some of the challenges, it just, it’s something that takes work."

Lauring’s lab sequences the viral RNA from every positive COVID test that goes through the U of M health system. Since August (before B.1.1.7 was identified), the researchers have uploaded 1,300 sequences to a public, international database.

Because of soaring cases in November, they’re still working through a backlog of samples, but Lauring says they plan to skip ahead to samples from January for the time being so as to maximize their chance of finding the variant. Once there’s room to breathe, they’ll return to the backlog samples, which are in freezer storage.

Since they first learned of the B.1.1.7 variant in mid-December, state researchers have completed 700 genomic sequences, according to Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Lynn Sutfin. (Since the start of the pandemic, they've completed thousands more.) Sutfin says MDHHS encourages facilities to send residual test samples to the the state lab for sequencing.

Both labs also study other mutations in the coronavirus, and have been since earlier in the pandemic. But B.1.1.7, as well as a similar variant that originated in South Africa, is the first that might alter the state’s response to the virus.

So far, data do not suggest that B.1.1.7 causes more severe disease, but Lauring notes that severity in the individual is not the same as severity in the population.

“It can still be more dangerous to the population,” he said. “And the reason is, if it spreads faster, then we could have more cases, and if we have more cases, we’re going to have more people in the hospital.”

Nor has evidence emerged that the variant could foil the immune system of someone who’s been vaccinated. A recent study from Pfizer and the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston suggests that the Pfizer vaccine does defend against the new mutation, but the paper has not yet been peer-reviewed.

So far, B.1.1.7 has been identified in eight U.S. states and more than 40 countries. 

Will Callan, a reporter for Michigan Radio, hails from the Bay Area, where he lived in Oakland and San Francisco and reported for local newspapers and magazines. He enjoys a long swim in chilly water (preferably followed by a sauna) and getting to know new cities. That's one reason he's excited to be in Ann Arbor, which he can already tell has just the right combo of urban grit and natural beauty to make him feel at home.
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