BU Scientists Are Prepared to Detect Omicron—and Other Variants

Original article from The Brink

BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) has been monitoring COVID-19 variants from BU and Boston Medical Center tests since February

When will the coronavirus variant known as Omicron arrive at BU? Although it’s hard to predict, it seems like a foregone conclusion that it’s only a matter of time given how quickly Omicron has spread around the world—already infecting people in more than 30 countries across 6 continents, and at least 16 US states. On December 4, the first known case of Omicron in Massachusetts was detected in a woman in her 20s who lives in Middlesex County.

One thing’s for certain—if and when Omicron infects a member of BU’s community, its presence will be quickly detected.

The University’s testing program—which screens a pool of all students, faculty, and staff that come to BU’s campuses—hinges upon its Clinical Testing Lab, which was rapidly outfitted with machinery and custom software to screen nasal swabs for coronavirus over the summer of 2020. Fully operational for the last year and a half, it has screened over two million swabs and is capable of processing up to 6,000 coronavirus tests per day.

And for every positive test result that diagnoses a new case of COVID-19, that swab is then couriered over to BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), where scientists perform genomic sequencing to determine the strain of the virus—mostly the Delta variant, since July 2021—and to detect whether transmission occurred from sources outside of the BU community or from within. The NEIDL also performs variant sequencing for Boston Medical Center (BMC), BU’s primary teaching hospital and the safety-net hospital for the city of Boston.

The NEIDL’s variant sequencing efforts took off in February 2021, after NEIDL virologist John Connor teamed up with BMC infectious disease clinician Karen Jacobson and other clinical staff to propose a plan for sequencing anonymized positive test results from BU’s Clinical Testing Lab, as well as patient samples from BMC’s COVID Biorepository and samples from BMC clinicians and staff.

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