Coronavirus variants spreading rapidly, and testing lags dramatically

In five weeks, variant cases rose 830% in NJ, and only 2% of cases are tested for new virus strains
Credit: NJ Spotlight News
In NJ, just 2% of COVID-19 tests are assessed for the presence of coronavirus variants.

Variants of the coronavirus behind COVID-19 are multiplying and infecting a rapidly growing number of people in New Jersey and nationwide, with an 830% rise in mutant strains found in this state over the past five weeks.

But that may be just the tip of the iceberg.

Between public, private and academic labs, the so-called sequencing tests needed to screen for variants are only conducted in roughly 2% of the COVID-19 tests given in New Jersey daily, the state Department of Health told NJ Spotlight News. Recently, more than 3,000 people are testing positive almost every day in this state.

“We have a lot of work to do, not only here in New Jersey, but also nationally as far as identification of variants,” state epidemiologist Dr. Christina Tan said Monday. “Here in New Jersey, we are taking a lot of steps to ramp up our sequencing in general, to have a better sense of the characterization of these variants.”

Tan also said it remains important for people to wear masks, social distance and abide by other public health precautions, which provide a level of protection against all forms of the virus. She also stressed that individuals who test positive for COVID-19 should immediately isolate and help contact tracers identify others that could be infected, not wait and try to determine what strain they have, a process she said can take a week or more.

While the numbers of variant cases identified in New Jersey remains fairly low, the rate of increase has been steep. Testing for these mutations was expanded in January and the state is now reporting 465 cases involving seven variations, up from 50 cases with one variant in mid-February.

The B.1.1.7, or United Kingdom, variant is by far the most common, with a presence in every New Jersey county and 389 cases statewide — nearly one-quarter of which have been identified in Ocean County. Another 64 cases of the New York variant or B1.526, have been identified, 20 of them in Essex County.

“We’re just assuming, as a public health matter, that these variants are all in the state, they’re more transmissible and we’re managing on that basis,” Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday at his regular pandemic media briefing. Experts also warn that the presence of Newark Liberty International Airport makes the state more susceptible to additional strains in the future.

Worries over increase in cases

Public health officials worry the increase in these variants is driving an overall rise in COVID-19 cases in some states and could prompt further surges and hospitalizations. New Jersey — which has reported nearly 870,000 diagnoses since March, including more than 24,400 who have died — has seen an increase in the past week in the statewide transmission rate and number of new cases reported daily.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Monday that some variants could now be responsible for a quarter of the cases in Arizona and more than half of those in California. She also said the U.K. variant could now be the source of 8% of Florida cases and 9% of those in New Jersey, CNN reported.

New Jersey Department of Health communications director Donna Leusner said variant screening is done at the state lab and at various academic labs. Information is also provided by the CDC, which is also examining nearly 7,000 random data samples a week from public and private labs nationwide, including New Jersey, according to the website.

Leusner said the state public-health lab receives sequence samples from private facilities when they involve “an atypical transmission pattern” or other suggestion that it could result from a COVID-19 variant. The state lab also collects samples on a random basis from northern, central and southern parts of the state, she said.

“We are increasing capacity at the state public-health lab and working with hospitals and private labs to acquire more representative specimens and working to partner with commercial/academic labs that have their own sequencing capacity,” Leusner said Tuesday.

But according to CDC tracking of data received from public and private laboratories nationwide, the federal agency has access to sequencing from just 0.2% of the COVID-19 tests administered in New Jersey. Only eight other states reported lower percentages of data to the CDC, while Delaware shares nearly 0.9% and New York just over 1%, making it one of 10 states to break that threshold. Wyoming, the nation’s highest, provides sequencing data from nearly 4.8% of its coronavirus tests to the CDC and Maine shares 3.4%, federal figures show.

To assist this quest to identify variants in New Jersey and elsewhere, Rutgers University researchers have created an alternative to the traditional sequencing process, one designed to help labs more quickly and efficiently identify COVID-19 mutations.

The Rutgers rapid test involves no special equipment and only limited additional training. Led by Dr. David Alland, director of the New Jersey Medical School’s Public Health Research Institute, the team is now working on a second version that can tease out exactly which of the four most common variants is present.

“We have received interest from the hospital and the state labs in New Jersey,” said Padmapriya Banada, an NJMS assistant professor and one of Alland’s co-researchers on the project. “We are working directly with them to transition the technology. This is currently active and we hope to see the test in use in these labs soon.”