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State lab uses virus' genetic material to pinpoint Delta variant in NC

Posted July 28, 2021 7:54 p.m. EDT
Updated July 29, 2021 12:26 a.m. EDT

— The rapid spread of the coronavirus Delta variant has researchers in a state lab in Raleigh working overtime to track the highly contagious strain.

"Our volume of samples and the number of samples is absolutely increasing at this point," said Scott Shone, director of the State Laboratory of Public Health.

About 20 people work on studying the virus' RNA in test samples to detect whether it has the genomic sequence of the Delta variant or another virus mutation. Shone said the lab is looking to double that staff.

"The Delta variant began to emerge quite substantially in June and, over the last few weeks, has just outpaced any other variant at a rate that is substantial," he said.

State health officials have said recently that the Delta variant accounts for about 80 percent of new infections in North Carolina.

The genomic sequencing information is shared with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health departments to help officials make decisions on how best to fight the virus.

"The role of public health is to be able to respond, and we’ve learned a lot of lessons over the last year and a half," Shone said. "The Delta variant has really been a game changer in terms of our understanding in what we’ve seen."

The effort not only helps detect new variants but also determine how effective existing vaccines and other therapies are in fighting them, he said.

"We expect variants to emerge. The whole goal of the virus is to change to help it be more effective at doing it’s job, which is to infect us," he said.

So far, the newest variant, Lambda, has been found only six times in North Carolina. Those samples were then sent to the CDC in Atlanta for further testing.

"It is altogether possible that other variants emerge that are more serious or as serious as Delta, and that’s why this testing ... is so critical," Shone said. "The key there is to make sure we have enough people with vaccines to prevent infection, which ultimately results in expanded variants."

Even after the pandemic, the genomic sequencing technology can be used to better identify and track food-borne illnesses, sexually transmitted disease and other infectious diseases.

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