State labs work to identify more cases of COVID-19 variant

LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — State labs are working around the clock to identify more COVID-19 cases associated with the new, faster-spreading variant of the virus.

The state identified one case of the B.1.1.7 strain over the weekend. They say it’s likely that there are more cases.

“We knew it was inevitable that something was going to happen. It wasn’t a matter of if, it was going to be a matter of when a mutation would happen that we would have to be screening for,” said Dr. Heather Blankenship, who is a bioinformatics and sequencing manager at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

MDHHS says regular COVID-19 tests used on patients do not produce information about the strain contracted. For that reason, they have to survey samples of the virus. Because genetic mutations often occur in viruses, MDHHS says they began testing for variants at the start of the pandemic.

Blankenship says the state Bureau of Laboratories is one of two labs running COVID-19 samples through a whole genome sequencing process to identify mutations. They’re also receiving help from the University of Michigan.

“(B.1.1.7) is most likely here. It’s most likely throughout the U.S., but until we detect it, we can’t definitively say it’s definitely there or in a population,” Blankenship said.

The lab takes positive test samples from all over the state and runs them through a series of machines to determine the virus’ genetic makeup. It can take up to seven days to get a result back. So far, the Bureau of Laboratories says they’ve tested over 6,000 samples, much higher than most labs across the country.

Blankenship says the labor intensive process is incredibly costly.

“We get a lot of funds from the CDC for things like this just because it is so important in order to respond to the pandemic,” she added.

Health experts say the good news is the new strain is not more deadly than the original and the vaccines once available should still be effective against it.

“It’s our responsibility now more than ever as we’re seeing these variants occur that we need to continue masking up, staying 6 feet apart, getting vaccinated if you are eligible,” Blankenship said.

Blankenship says there are likely multiple mutations of COVID-19 floating around, not just B.1.1.7. She says most of them will never be discovered as they cause the virus to be ineffective in spreading. Their biggest concern is making sure treatments remain effective despite the virus’ genetic changes.