CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University has detected multiple mutant strains of COVID-19 in Oregon, including the highly contagious U.K. strain in one sample from Bend.
The Bend wastewater sample was found Dec. 22, and genetic sequencing conducted by OSU revealed the U.K. strain on Jan. 21.
“OHA is working quickly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and partners statewide to build COVID-19 sequencing surveillance to track the evolution of virus mutations over time. All viruses mutate and these variants are not unexpected,” said Dr. Melissa Sutton, OHA medical director of respiratory viral pathogens.
“We will see COVID-19 variants rise and fall in abundance through our population over time and the rise of a new variant is not necessarily cause for alarm. However, monitoring variants is critical to our understanding of disease transmission, disease severity, the ability to evade testing, vaccine effectiveness and treatment resistance,” she said.
Since last spring, the university’s Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing has been running genetic sequencing on all positive COVID-19 samples obtained from TRACE testing of individuals and wastewater from OSU campuses and Oregon communities.
In recent weeks, researchers looking for evidence of variants of SARS-CoV-2, most notably the U.K., South African and Brazilian variants that have been shown to be more contagious than common variants of the virus.
“With the new variants arriving, being able to understand which variants are circulating among communities is becoming increasingly more important,” said Brett Tyler, director of the genome center.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ramped up its monitoring of mutant stains nationwide, as agency experts are concerned that the mutant strains could eventually evade the vaccine currently being distributed, especially if there are delays in giving people the second vaccine dose needed to achieve strong immunity. Because current mutants from the U.K., South Africa and Brazil are more contagious and spread faster, contact tracing will need to be swift to prevent further spread.
As of Monday, the OSU lab has completed genetic sequencing on more than 1,100 samples – 936 wastewater samples and 174 individual samples from the TRACE OSU and TRACE Community surveys from around the state. In Oregon, only OSU and OHSU in Portland are currently running genetic sequencing on viral samples.
Five individuals tested on OSU’s Corvallis campus were positive for the “L452R” mutant strain of COVID-19. The strain was also present in campus wastewater samples.
“This strain is not of the highest concern, like those other three (U.K, South African and Brazilian variants), but it has spread extensively in Southern California and was associated with some recent large outbreaks in Santa Clara County,” Tyler said.
As the country moves into the vaccination phase of the pandemic, knowing exactly which viral strains are circulating will become more important, as they could impact the vaccine’s effectiveness, said Tyler Radniecki, an OSU associate professor of engineering and the lead on TRACE’s wastewater sampling.
“The wider the pandemic gets, the more genetic variation we see in the virus, and some variations in this phase of the pandemic may well matter,” Radniecki said.
“The wastewater sampling is particularly powerful because of its broad scope,” Tyler said. “Each sample represents a survey of an entire community, or subsection of a community, which is much more cost-effective than testing people one by one.”
OHA will partner with OSU to expand its wastewater surveillance to every county statewide, Radniecki said. All of these sites’ samples will be sequenced weekly.