Ryan Tewhey at work in his research lab at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor in September. Tewhey and his team, including research associate Daniel Berenzy, right, have been conducting genomic sequencing of positive COVID-19 tests in Maine to look for variants such as delta. PHOTO BY TIFFANY LAUFER/THE JACKSON LABORATORY

Jackson Lab on lookout for Omicron

ELLSWORTH — As the world braces for the spread of yet another COVID-19 variant, this one dubbed “Omicron,” work continues in Hancock County at The Jackson Laboratory, where scientists in the lab’s genomic sequencing program are working to determine the variants behind the state’s positive coronavirus cases.

That sequencing — the method of determining an organism’s genetic makeup — will continue and capacity could increase if Omicron crosses state borders, said Ryan Tewhey, an assistant professor at the lab’s Bar Harbor campus.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each week sends samples for the lab to sequence. The partnership between the lab and the state has been going on for about a year, Tewhey said.

The lab’s Maine and Connecticut locations sequence samples, but most of the sequencing for the Maine samples is being conducted at the Bar Harbor campus.

The first case of Omicron in the United States was reported Dec. 1. Scientists and public health officials are concerned about the variant.

“There’s cause for concern, but we also don’t have all the information yet,” Tewhey said, noting the number of mutations in the variant’s spike protein and how quickly cases have risen in South Africa.

But it’s too early to tell what this means on a large scale, or how the state of Maine will be affected, Tewhey said.
Understanding the variant’s transmissibility and ability to evade vaccines is important, and that data will become more available in the coming weeks, he explained.

Omicron was first detected in South Africa, not because it likely originated there, Tewhey said, but because of the “amazing efforts” of that country’s genomic surveillance program. Dutch health authorities announced this week that they found the Omicron variant in cases dating back to before cases were identified in South Africa.

The importance of sequencing is twofold, Tewhey explained.

Understanding what variants are cropping up — and seeing that data early on — gives “people the ability to react before it’s too, too late,” he said, giving time for measures to be initiated that will help stop the spread of the virus.
Additionally, tracking variants in the state helps determine how quickly a certain variant is spreading and whether it can evade vaccines or cause different health outcomes, all of which are important to know, Tewhey said.
Currently, there are not any reported cases of Omicron in Maine and the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the state remains the Delta variant.

The state’s seven-day positivity rate — the percentage of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that come back positive — continues to climb, with the Maine CDC reporting a rate of 11.3 on Nov. 30.

Rebecca Alley

Rebecca Alley

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Rebecca is the Schoodic-area reporter and covers the towns of Eastbrook, Franklin, Hancock, Lamoine, Sorrento, Sullivan, Waltham, Winter Harbor and Trenton. She lives in Ellsworth with her husband and baby boy who was joyously welcomed in June 2020. Feel free to send tips and story ideas to [email protected]

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