The University of Nebraska-Lincoln will begin participating in virus sequencing of positive on-campus COVID-19 saliva samples to track the spread of potential COVID-19 variants.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services requested the genomic sequencing to analyze the structure of the virus to discern mutations of COVID-19, which will be done through the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory, according to an update to Nebraska Today’s COVID-19 Digest page on March 28.
Privacy laws prohibit identification of individuals who test positive for COVID-19, and results will be communicated privately and securely to UNL community members through the Safer Community app and UNL’s online portal.
If a variant is found in a campus sample it will be reported to the public, Nebraska Today states.
Tim Timmons, communicable disease supervisor with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, said viruses tend to mutate over time. This is the same reason a new flu vaccine must be taken each year for different strains of influenza.
He said mutations often do not affect viruses in terms of transmission, severity or effectiveness against vaccines or treatment — three qualities health officials track. Sometimes, however, mutations can have this impact, and some COVID-19 variants are concerning.
“The more the opportunity presents itself for the virus to mutate, the more possibility of the virus mutating,” Timmons said.
As the coronavirus continues to spread and people are infected with COVID-19, there is a greater chance of mutations.
“That’s a real concern, and that’s why the push right now is to get people vaccinated,” Timmons said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies COVID-19 variants in three ways: variants of interest, variants of concern and variants of high consequence.
Variants of interest include two variants first identified in New York and one identified in Brazil. These variants are defined by predicted increases in transmissibility or disease severity or a predicted decrease in efficacy in treatments.
Variants of concern include one variant each first identified in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa and two variants first identified in California. These variants are denoted through evidence for increased transmissibility, severity or reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, among other attributes.
The CDC does not list any variants of high consequence at this time. These variants would have evidence of a significant impact on available therapeutics, potentially including treatments or vaccines.
Of the five identified variants of concern, there is an estimated 50% increase in transmission for the variants identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa — B.1.1.7 and B.1.351, respectively — and about a 20% increase in transmissibility for both variants first identified in California — B.1.427 and B.1.429.
The variant identified in the United Kingdom is also estimated to be more severe based on hospitalizations and fatality rates, while the variants identified in California appear to have a significant impact on authorized therapeutics — the others have a moderate impact on therapeutics.
The CDC also states variants in the United States appear to spread more easily and quickly than other variants. This could lead to more COVID-19 cases, a greater strain on health care resources and more hospitalizations or deaths.
Studies are underway to understand the impact of variants on authorized vaccines, though initial studies suggest antibodies will detect the variants and be effective, according to the CDC.
At UNL, a change in guidance would come not only from the presence of a variant but from the impact, according to Deb Fiddelke, UNL’s chief communication and marketing officer.
There have been three cases of variants confirmed in Lincoln — one case of the B.1.429 variant identified in California, confirmed on Feb. 27, and two cases of the B.1.1.7 variant identified in the United Kingdom, confirmed in Lincoln on March 10 and April 2.
None of these variants have been linked to the university.
Leslie Reed, UNL’s public affairs director, said UNL’s multi-layered response has been “largely successful” in minimizing the spread of COVID-19 on campus, and she and Fiddelke said UNL will continue to work closely with the health department to identify if there is an impact.
“We’re happy to be able to have this opportunity to just ascertain to what extent if [there are] and to what extent there may be any variants present here,” Fiddelke said.
Nebraska health officials are also looking at the impact of variants and will sequence positive samples from people who previously had COVID-19 infections after their expected 90-day immunity window, Timmons said. This is to see whether the new infection is a result of a variant.
A similar process will also be done with any individual who tests positive two weeks after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination — the time at which individuals should be fully immunized.
The health department is continuing to vaccinate individuals in its priority vaccination phases, but Nebraska residents who are ages 18 years and older are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program.
UNL issued a statement on Friday and “strongly encouraged” individuals to get a COVID-19 vaccine if they get the opportunity.
While the push to get vaccinations continues, Timmons said current COVID-19 guidance, including mask wearing, physical distancing and handwashing, remains.
“Right now it’s kind of a race to get as many people vaccinated as possible so we can take away that opportunity for the virus to continue to mutate and possibly change in such a way that the vaccine may not be as effective,” he said.