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Miami-Dade Lab First To Sequence COVID-19 Omicron Variant

MIAMI (CBSMiami) -- Across the globe, hundreds of millions of COVID-19 cases have been reported since the pandemic began. During that time, five strains of the virus have plagued the world. Due to the fact that the virus is so transmissible, a process called sequencing has become a crucial tool used to identify new variants.

"Alright, so this is ready to load," explained Karina Suarez, a Medical Laboratory Scientist at Cardio Path Labs, as she demonstrates the first step in achieving a positive or negative PCR result.

"Right now, we're seeing 99% of tests coming back as Omicron," explained Aron Banks, a Molecular Biologist and CEO of Cardio Path Labs.

Cardio Path Labs specializes in transplant diagnostics. but when COVID-19 hit, there was a shift in focus.

"We were able to immediately start sequencing COVID as it was evolving.  We were the first in Miami-Dade to sequence Omicron," says Banks.

Despite the havoc that Omicron would create, this was a proud moment for Banks.

"It's very important to identify emergent variants as quickly as possible.  Shortly after that it was pandemonium. We were processing 5,000, 6,000, even 7,000 tests per day," he said.

During the wave of Omicron, at one point, 70% of their tests showed a positive result.

"What we quickly realized was how fast Omicron was infecting the population," Banks explained.

By now, we're all familiar with rapid and PCR testing.  But prior to COVID19, PCR was a very unique and specialized field.

"Nothing in the industry is going to reach the level of sensitivity and accuracy as traditional PCR format," he said.

To determine the strains of the virus, a PCR result is needed first.  There are seven steps involved just to determine a positive or negative PCR result.

"From beginning to end it typically takes 4-5 hours," said Banks.

Then, to figure out which variant of COVID19 is present, add on another seven steps.

"On this chip there's about 96 patient specimens that are positive.  Now, we'll insert this chip into our Ion GeneStudio.  Through this instrument we're able to determine the exact variant," Banks explained.

First, COVID-19 samples are reverse transcribed into cDNA.  Then, the samples are broken down into millions of fragments.  From there, the Ion GeneStudio machine analyzes the content and provides a genetic code with the results.

"The entire sequencing process on average takes about 72 hours."

Very few labs across the country have access to the technology needed to perform next generation sequencing testing.

"Variant identification is extremely important because as we saw with Omicron, how transmissible it was," said Banks.

Banks says, they want to help be a part of the solution.  Cardio Path Labs is working to report any new findings to the CDC in hopes they can be one small piece of the puzzle to putting an end to this pandemic.

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