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WSU’s Molecular Lab: Ability to detect COVID-19 variants

Coronavirus in Kansas

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW)- No matter the variant, Wichita State’s Molecular Diagnostics Lab knows a positive Covid-19 case when it receives one. Technical Director Sarah Nickel said when a new mutation comes into the lab, she is able to work quickly to isolate the case. 

 “All of the techs knew that they needed to watch for that to potentially happen and as soon as it did happen they alerted all of the other techs that we had one,” said Nickel.

Nickel said right away, it was known that Covid-19 could mutate, meaning new strains could develop. She said that’s what the lab planned for from the very start. 

“When we started this lab knowing that I wanted to have a test available that could possibly look for mutations because this is a virus that does mutate,” Nickel said. 

She said the test looks at different parts of the virus. She said if it is considered positive, all of the lines spike upward. But if it is a mutation of Covid-19, one of the lines will be flat. She said it is still positive for Covid-19, but shows there is a different part to the virus. 

The first U.K. variant was detected in this lab. Nickel said if others come through, the results would likely be similar. 

Nickel said the lab lacks the technology to officially confirm the mutation. “We can presumptively identify the UK variant but we can not confirm a positive. We actually need to get it sequenced and look at the whole viral genome to be able to do that,” Nickel said. 

She said seeing how fast mutations are happening, she would like to explore the option to have sequencing. Sequencing is when a system can break apart the test even further, to identify where the strand comes from and which one it is. 

Nickel said the process to find the mutation is fast, but having the system to know which mutation it is, would make it even faster to know how to isolate a person. She added the treatment is similar for those with a variant or the original Covid-19 strain.

Nickel advised to isolate, get tested, and drink liquids. “It is mutating fast so the more that we all contribute to trying to just prevent the spread in the first place, testing to identify, isolating when needed is really going to help you know to prevent future mutations if we can do those things,” she said. 

Nickel added it’s not yet clear if other variants are more dangerous. She said viruses can adapt to find ways to still attack the body, but studies are underway to know if the UK and other variants are more aggressive. She s asked that people not be concerned, but to be aware.

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