A more contagious variant, first observed in the UK, has been detected in eight US states, including California.
San Mateo-based Helix has partnered with Illumina to sequence genetic material from a positive COVID-19 test, hoping to more quickly identify areas where the variant is spreading.
“Virus sequencing or virus surveillance is one of those tools that we don’t use as much as we should use during a pandemic,” said James Lu, President of Helix.
He said they were working to sequence about 1,000 samples a day, which is far more than the US has previously tested, but Lu said the goal is much higher.
“Britain, which is the world leader in virus surveillance, accounts for about 7% of all positive cases,” Lu said.
If the US were to test the same percentage, he said it would be about 10,000 genome sequences per day.
“I am almost certain that we are not doing enough genetic testing for the virus in the US,” said Dr. Charles Chiu, UCSF Professor of Laboratory Medicine, whose laboratory has identified two variant cases in San Bernardino.
While the CDC has formed a consortium known as SPHERES for public and private research institutions to submit test results, Chiu said, so far, efforts to carry out countrywide virus surveillance have been “fragmented.”
The effect is the variant’s ability to spread undetected.
“Although it is still at a low level, it is still possible to stop its widespread spread,” Chiu said, but only if testing is increased and outbreaks can be identified quickly.
The collaboration between Helix and Illumina has identified 51 of the first 54 cases of variant B. 1.1.7 in the US
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