The new, more infectious strain of the novel coronavirus is most likely already in Nebraska, the state’s chief medical officer said Wednesday.
Nebraska is starting to monitor for the strain but has not yet proved the mutated virus is here, officials said Wednesday. The Nebraska public health lab is purchasing its own equipment to be able to test for the strain and will have it running within about a week, said Dr. Gary Anthone, the chief medical officer.
Anthone, speaking by video at a press conference with Gov. Pete Ricketts, said the strain could lead to an increase in hospitalizations, and that’s why officials are concerned about it.
“Hopefully we can keep this under control as we roll out our vaccinations,” Anthone said.
Anthone said the strain, first identified in the United Kingdom, has now been identified in five U.S. states: California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and New York.
Officials said the current testing systems, including TestNebraska, are able to identify a positive case from the mutated strain. However, the test results won’t tell the person if they’re infected specifically by the new strain.
Anthone said that, so far, the vaccines being distributed appear to cover the mutated strain.
He said the new strain shows the need to stress public health precautions to limit spread of the virus: wearing a mask, keeping distance from other people, washing your hands and avoiding crowded places, close contacts and confined spaces.
Peter Iwen, director of the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory, said his staff has begun using its new testing platform, the ThermoFisher TaqPath assay, to periodically sample positive test specimens from virus hot spots within the state for the variant.
Hot spots can indicate a higher rate of transmission, like what has been found with the U.K. strain.
The public health lab also has encouraged other labs in the state to send specimens that produce unusual positive results to the lab for sampling.
Among the mutations to the U.K. variant’s genetic material are several that involve the spike protein. Found on the surface of the virus, the spike allows the virus to bind to receptors on the surface of human cells and cause infection.
Anthone said the mutations allow the spike to bind more easily than the original strain, which is what scientists believe is enhancing its ability to spread.
The TaqPath assay can point to the spike mutations. To confirm the variant, Iwen said, the lab must determine the genetic sequence of the virus in the sample.
In addition to adding the assay, the public health lab also has been sending some full genetic sequences from virus samples collected in Nebraska to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention each week.
As part of a larger, ongoing effort, every state has been asked to send such samples, with the number based on its population.
“We aren’t just sitting back letting this happen,” Iwen said of the variant. “We’re looking for it as best as we can at this moment.”
World-Herald staff writer Julie Anderson contributed to this report.