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Connecticut labs step up surveillance amid new COVID-19 variant omicron

Nationally, only about 5-10% of all COVID-19 positive samples are being analyzed. Here in Connecticut, it’s 25%

ROCKY HILL, Conn. — With a new concerning COVID-19 variant circulating in at least 20 countries, the global health community is on alert. Meanwhile, Connecticut labs are stepping up their surveillance efforts. 

FOX61 took an exclusive look under the microscope and behind the glass at the state’s level-two bio containment lab in Rocky Hill where COVID-19 positive samples are analyzed.

This is among the first places where the COVID-19 variants Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta were all first discovered in Connecticut. Now, Omicron is knocking on our door.

Is it here already?

“It’s a matter of time before the first case will be declared in the United States. I would be surprised if it’s not in the United States,” said Jafar Razeq, the director of the Connecticut Public Health Lab.

RELATED: Omicron variant: Don’t wait to get a booster shot, doctors say

If and when Omicron is found in the United States, can it be kept out of Connecticut?

“Yeah that’s a tough question,” said Razeq. “It depends on how much travel is happening in and out of this state.”

The state health lab in Rocky Hill and the Jackson Labs in Farmington are two of Connecticut's biggest tools to find the variant, which was first discovered in South Africa.

Both are stepping up their surveillance efforts through a scientific process called genomic sequencing. They are putting samples of the virus under the microscope and analyzing the mutations on the spike protein.

“Most labs that are doing testing have the ability to recognize a potential Omicron on day one when the test is run,” said Mark Adams, the Deputy DIrector of the Jackson Laboratory in Farmington.  

Although, he noted that a final definitive result isn’t available for three to four days.

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A 3D model of Omicron shows a myriad of changes from the original COVID-19 virus located on the spike protein. The spike protein is the business end of the virus that vaccines use to identify and create protective antibodies.

Over the course of the pandemic, Connecticut has analyzed thousands of COVID-19 samples. Once the Delta variant was discovered, it only took about two months for Delta to take over and virtually eliminate all other circulating variants.

“It’s all Delta. We haven’t seen a non-Delta case in over a month,” explained Adams.

Nationally, only about 5% to 10% of all COVID-19 positive samples are being analyzed. Here in Connecticut, it’s 25%.

“Getting is primed to be able to respond,” said Adams.

RELATED: New info shows omicron spread wider earlier than thought

Health officials are responding to a largely still unknown enemy. Early signs of Omicron show it might be more infectious than even Delta, but does it cause more severe disease, and will the vaccines hold up? Until those questions get answered, scientists point to the same public health measures: Social distance, masks and vaccines.

“It’s what will work with Omicron, it’s what worked with Delta, and Alpha,” said Razeq.

The director of the State Lab told FOX61 that if Omicron is already here, it will most likely be discovered in the southern part of the state nearest to travel hubs like New York City. Once a case is identified, contact tracers will work to quarantine those at risk as close contacts and the public will be notified.

Matt Caron is a reporter at FOX61 News. He can be reached at mcaron@fox61.com. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


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