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OHSU awarded $3M to expand research on COVID-19 variants in Oregon, SW Washington

Researchers estimate about 90% of COVID-19 cases in Oregon right now are actually variants of the first novel coronavirus.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) was awarded $3 million in state and federal funding to expand its research on COVID-19 variants in Oregon and Southwest Washington. 

Tracking variants will be a major focus moving forward in the pandemic. According to OHSU's research, it's estimated that about 90% of COVID cases in Oregon right now are actually variants of the first novel coronavirus.

Currently OHSU only studies about 3% of Oregon's positive COVID test samples using a process called genome sequencing. With the boost in funding, the institute will be able to examine closer to 40-50% of samples. 

On Wednesday, OHSU said in a news release it's getting $1 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  and $2 million will come from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to learn how fast variants are spreading and, more importantly, whether the vaccine starts to become ineffective against the spread. 

"If there's an outbreak in a lot of people that have been vaccinated and it's leading to severe disease, that's what we're really worried about," said Dr. Donna Hansel with OHSU School of Medicine. "Then we can raise the flag and say, there's a new variant and this is what we need to look out for."

Credit: Oregon Health & Science University

Dr. Hansel says most variants in Oregon spread more easily than the original, but they don't necessarily lead to more serious infections, especially not in those that have been vaccinated.

Eventually the researchers hope to be able to examine all positive COVID samples in the state. In severe cases, knowing what variant a patient has could determine their course of treatment.