Scientists say sequencing is vital to staying ahead of Omicron variant

WASHINGTON, D.C. — More cases of the new Omicron variant are popping up in the U.S. every day.

But there’s still a lot we don’t know about the new strain and how it stands up to the vaccine.

Scientists have been using a process called sequencing during the pandemic to learn more about COVID-19 and its mutations.

The South African doctors who found the Omicron variant say we need to increase those sequencing efforts globally so we know where the next variant may be.

“It’s still really a mystery why a virus has so many mutations,” said Dr. Sikhulile Moyo, Laboratory Director at the Botswana Harvard HIV Reference laboratory.

It’s a mystery that is still two to three weeks away from revealing new answers.

Dr. Sikhulile Moyo discovered the Omicron variant last month, and he said it’s not a surprise his team found it because they sequence COVID-19 samples weekly.

Moyo said sequencing will be vital for staying ahead of it.

“Right now, infections are going up, so we need to triple, quadruple our sequencing capacity,” said Dr. Moyo. “In areas where there is very low coverage of sequencing, there was no chance it could be detected early.”

In the U.S. more states are reporting cases of the omicron variant.

“This is a really important test - this Omicron variant,” said Dr. Roger Shapiro, infectious diseases associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Dr. Shapiro said states should be ready to bring back mask mandates and other restrictions if needed but for now, he said the big defense is getting vaccinated.

“We do hope that vaccines will still keep people out of the hospital and certainly reduce the number of death,” said Shapiro.

He said it’s likely we’ll have winter surges in the future.

“We’ve been dealing flu seasons in our country forever and we’ll be dealing with COVID season too, and we’re going to manage it,” said Shapiro.