BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Erie County Department of Health has sent all of its positive COVID tests to UB's Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM) Community of Excellence.
Dr. Jennifer Surtees is the co-director of the genome sequencing center and looks for mutations in the virus, and if those changes make it more dangerous. Those dangerous mutations are variants.
“Apart from this work that we’re doing, there isn’t a comprehensive variant surveillance in the area,” Surtees said.
That's how Erie County learned five positive cases from late January were the B.1.427 and B.1.429 “California” variant. The CDC said it's 20% more transmissible, and some COVID-19 treatments aren't as effective.
Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said there needs to more genome sequncing like UB's to detect these variants.
“We’re behind the ball for that, I know Europe is much more advanced in this than we are, and we really need to catch up,” Burstein said.
Wadsworth public health lab in Albany tests for variants. Surtees said it takes a small sample from counties across the state, but it's not comprehensive of a specific area.
7 Eyewitness News asked Surtees how concerned the community needs to be about the variants at this time.
"I think we need to be concerned, I think we’re finding these and we’re, as I said, we’ve only sequenced a small fraction of the cases that are out there, at the end of this week we’ll have a better idea of what February and March looked like.”
UB will now receive Kaleida's positive tests, and the 100-200 a month Surtees said comes from the health department. Erie County has thousands of positive cases a month, however, and Surtees said experts recommend 5% of positive cases be examined for variants.
She said it's not just about looking for known variants, but the potential for new ones. She said it's possible there are homegrown ones.
"If we see a particular variant happening over, and over, and over again, kind of taking over the population of cases, that suggests that it has a selective advantage and maybe is more transmissible, and that's something that we need to pay attention to," Surtees said.
Surtees said this is the first time genome sequencing has been used on pathogens in this way, and that it can be a powerful tool going forward to help understand other virus outbreaks, even if it's not a pandemic.