GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — While the United Kingdom variant has only recently been detected for the first time in Michigan, scientists at the state lab in Lansing have been monitoring mutations and variances for several months.
So far, the team at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has analyzed roughly 6,000 samples from all across that state that were detected with unusual findings from COVID tests through counties or other clinical settings. Those samples are then tested at the lab in Lansing and in Ann Arbor, in partnership with the University of Michigan.
"We have been monitoring. We have been looking. It wasn't a matter of if a variant was going to rise; it was a matter of when," said Dr. Heather Blankenship, Bioinformatics and Sequencing Section Manager at MDHHS.
Dr. Blankenship and her team have analyzed roughly 6,000 samples since the beginning of the pandemic, finding about two mutations per month. Compared to a virus like HIV, SARS-COV-2 is a relatively slow-mutating virus.
The process to test the samples includes nucleic acid extraction, a practice in molecular biology. Then the sample is put into a genome sequencer, which allows the code of the virus to be read more easily so that it can be deciphered. The process can take several days to complete.
"It's very time intensive and labor intensive to get these samples through this test and to the end result. So we are, right now, running about four to 500 [samples] a week,” said Dr. Heather Blankenship.
If they do detect any changes in the samples, they look for additional trends such as if the variances are more prevalent based on demographics or geographical locations.
"It really has become a very team effort here at the State laboratory in order to get all these samples through and ensure that we are having a quick turnaround time so that the data can be useful, and actually applied to public health actions," said Dr. Heather Blankenship.
Some of the mutations and variants may not impact the virus at all, or it could even kill the virus. Other mutations could cause more harm, such as the U.K. variant that makes the virus more contagious.
"On a personal level, I think it's very rewarding to see how much impact whole genome sequencing can have and how we can even further help respond to this pandemic and help to give an idea of what may be occurring what we may be seeing."