By Alan Gionet

(CBS4) – As the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment watches for variants of SARS-CoV-2, researchers are working on better ways to detect it.

“We’ve just had so much infection and so much viral replication going on throughout the world, that eventually there’s going to be a change that’s going to be meaningful and that’s really what we’re starting to see,” said
Dr. David Beuther, an associate professor of medicine at National Jewish Health.

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Researchers at the Advanced Diagnostics Laboratory at National Jewish are working on it.

“They already have a preliminary test they’re working through how to detect variants that should be available shortly,” said Dr. Beuther.

Most research on variants is being done via genomic testing — in effect reading the bar code of the virus to identify it. But those tests are more detailed and, while getting cheaper, still relatively costly.

The most worrisome mutations right now are those involving changes to the spike protein that the COVID-19 virus uses to attach to cells.

“The good news and the bad news of the spike protein is that it’s almost an easy target,” says Beuther.

That’s why vaccines, including the two currently approved for use in the U.S., target the spike protein. The big worry would be if the virus evolves enough, it might begin to evade those efforts.

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The more cases of COVID around the world, the more possibilities of variants.

“We might end up doing really good job because we’re a wealthy country that has resources. And can get vaccine and I really worry that there could be a situation where we’re doing better in the United States and there are some other countries that are not doing as well. We still have to be worried about that. Because that variant could come anywhere in the world and show up in the United States,” says Beuther.

The best way to determine a variant is with genomic sequencing. But that is not currently possible on all samples. But it is possible to find evidence of some variants on some current COVID tests. Positive results of current nasal swab tests can show evidence of the protein spikes and the enclosure of the virus, known as the nucleocapsid, as they appear to have done in the UK variant known as B.1.1.7.

“But we started to see some cases where infection had a positive nucleocapsid and negative spike, which was probably related to the fact that there was a big mutation in that spike protein,” says Beuther.

But a reliable test for a variety of variants is needed.

In the meantime, reducing the spread of the virus will give it less chance to mutate, as the opportunity comes with each new case of COVID-19. One way to do that is to get vaccines out to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

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“If you’ve been vaccinated and there’s one of these variants out there you get exposed to or maybe a worse variant in the future, you’re still going to be way better off and way less likely to be hospitalized or have severe illness.”

Alan Gionet