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LSU Health Science lab studying COVID variants

“Clearly the virus is ‘trying out’ different solutions to improve its ability to spread and so these do need to be tracked."

NEW ORLEANS — According to the White House’s chief medical adviser, the so called South African variant of the Coronavirus can potentially reinfect people with an earlier infection.  

Before that, Johnson and Johnson’s study of its vaccine in South Africa showed reduced efficacy in severe cases.  That mutation of the Coronavirus is causing concern.  

“That may indicate that the South African variant is a little harder for the immune system to defeat, even after vaccination.  We don’t know that for sure, but it’s a possibility,” Dr. Lucio Miele said. 

Dr. Miele is the chair of the department of genetics at LSU Health Sciences in New Orleans.  In the past six months, he and his colleagues redirected their lab to perform genomic sequencing on the Coronavirus. Their goal is to detect variants like the ones found in South Africa or the United Kingdom.

“There are probably more out there, because the number of cases that are sequenced is miniscule compared to the number of cases that are tested,” Dr. Miele said.   

A vast majority of the more than 350,000 Coronavirus cases in Louisiana have been detected through what are called PCR tests.

“Outside of where the PCR looks, they can’t tell you what variant you have,” Dr. Miele said. 

Without that information, Dr. Miele says it’ll be harder to determine if vaccines need to be adjusted to protect us from certain mutations and the pandemic could drag on even longer. 

In the last week, the lab has sequenced more than 300 cases, all of them staff and students at the campus.  Dr. Miele says this needs to happen on a larger scale because the U.S. is very much behind the curve in understanding the prevalence of the variants.

“Clearly the virus is ‘trying out’ different solutions to improve its ability to spread and so these do need to be tracked," Dr. Miele said.     

Dr. Miele says sequencing is more labor and data intensive, which requires more funding.  LSU Health Sciences New Orleans is looking to partner with the Louisiana Department of Health, which recently said the three cases of the U.K. variant in the state should be considered the tip of the iceberg.  

We did not hear back from the LDH regarding when or if it’ll partner with LSU’s in New Orleans.  A separate lab at LSU Health Sciences in Shreveport has been conducting sequencing, but health officials say this kind of work must expand rapidly.  

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