Good Question: Do current COVID tests detect variants?

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC)— For this story, let’s focus not on the typical COVID cases, but instead, let’s look at the variants.

Steve asked News10NBC’s Brennan Somers: Do the current tests for COVID-19 detect them?

The short answer to that is no: At least not on the spot.

If you go get a test at a pharmacy, or at the state site and find out you’re positive, they can’t immediately tell you if you have one of the variants. It’s a labor-intensive process that takes time.

Dr. Emil Lesho, an Infectious Disease Specialist at Rochester Regional Health, told Somers the current system to do this type of screening in the U.S. isn’t where it should be.

He compared finding these specific cases to driving a car with old headlights.

"Instead of having the latest led super bright lights we can see all the pedestrians 200 yards away it’s like having just a railroad lantern on top of the car that occasionally flickers and goes out," Lesho said. "That’s what the situation is."

At RRH, they use several factors to determine which positive tests to send off to get screened. Some of it is random sampling, but for variants, they are really looking for concerning patterns.

For example, you have an outbreak that seems to be very contagious and attack at a higher rate, they’ll send a batch off to a reference lab. Those experts focus on genome sequencing, they map the unique genetic makeup of individual organisms, in this case, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The sequences are cross-referenced with public health data. When mutations in the virus correspond with an otherwise unexplained increase that’s a major clue.

"That’s what gives the sequence and the finding meaning," Lesho added. "It says this has this important mutation, or it doesn’t have that important mutation, and this is where we think it came from or where it evolved based on how many how different it is from his predecessors."

Dr. Lesho says if everything goes as planned and they have enough dry ice on hand to make a shipment for a batch of serious concern they need an answer for, they could get results in about a week.


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