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Washington state testing for COVID-19 omicron variant

Washington health officials are confident virologists will be able to detect the omicron variant when it reaches the state.

SEATTLE — There are still many unknowns when it comes to the new COVID-19 variant of concern identified in South Africa.

The variant, called omicron, has not yet been found in Washington, but state health officials can agree on one thing: it’s not if but when the variant will be found in Washington state.

“I think all of our panelists and I agree, wholeheartedly, that omicron is in the U.S.,” Washington State Hospital Association CEO Cassie Sauer said during a briefing Monday morning. “I think that there is almost no chance that it’s not.”

Washington has been one of the best states in the country at detecting variants through genomic sequencing since early in the pandemic, and health officials believe there is little chance the omicron variant will go undetected in Washington state.

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Washington is among the top 10 states for sequencing in the U.S. and has “some of the best eyes out there” looking for the variant, according to Dr. Alex Greninger, the assistant professor in the department of laboratory medicine and pathology at the UW School of Medicine and assistant director of the Clinical Virology Laboratories at the University of Washington Medical Center.

Greninger said the state is currently sequencing 800 to 1,000 samples a week.

“There is really no evidence that we’re not going to be able to detect this variant," said Greninger. "I think with all the other variants there really has been very little effect on the testing performance."

Greninger said almost all of the molecular tests being performed in the state “have at least two targets, so even if there were some sort of mutation in one of these variants that affected one of the targets, the other target would pick it up.” He explained because of the multiple targets, each molecular test has sort of an “insurance policy” that the variant would have been detected.

Greninger said almost all of the COVID-19 antigen tests target the virus’ nucleocapsid protein, which is “not highly mutated. Most of the mutations in the omicron variant are found in the spike protein.”

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“So, from a testing standpoint, we’re going to be able to detect [the omicron variant],” said Greninger.

Greninger went on to explain the omicron variant has “sort of the same hallmark” as the alpha variant, which is a “small deletion in the spike protein. This makes rapidly screening candidate omicron variants possible because it is specific to the variant.

“There really are almost no other strains, or deltas, that have this deletion, so now [the tests] are highly specific for omicron,” said Greninger.

Greninger said the state is rapid screening all positive COVID-19 tests to look for the “hallmark” the omicron variant shares.

Concern over the COVID-19 omicron variant comes as hospitalizations in the state have decreased since last week. Sauer said hospitalizations have decreased about 14% since last week. However, patients on ventilators increased by 6% since last week.

“We’re still seeing 10 to 15 people in the state die a day, and it’s almost always preventable,” said Sauer.

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