Iowa struggling to analyze emerging COVID-19 variants
The State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa is receiving too few positive COVID-19 tests to reliably monitor the virus, making it harder for researchers to detect new strains in recent months.
Why it matters: Keeping track of emerging COVID trends and data can help health officials prevent surges and figure out the most helpful vaccines.
- For example, voluntary pooled sampling from travelers helped researchers detect the Delta virus variant at airports in 2021 before it became widespread in the U.S.
State of play: The state lab at the University of Iowa conducts genome sequencing on positive tests submitted by health facilities around Iowa. Sequencing helps with understanding how the virus is changing, Michael Pentella, director of the lab, tells Axios in an email.
- But fewer people are doing testing for COVID in Iowa. If they are getting sick, they're likely self-testing at home, which doesn't get sent to the state.
- Iowa is now asking health facilities to try and send 10 positive COVID tests to state labs weekly to improve their analyses.
The big picture: Sharing data has also become more difficult nationally after the federal government ended its emergency proclamation against COVID in May, Davida Smyth, a microbiologist at Texas A&M University, tells Axios.
Between the lines: Even if COVID tests in hospitals and doctor's offices are decreasing, Smyth says there's still one universal way of surveilling the virus: wastewater.
Zoom in: The ideal scenario is for states to be able to randomly clinically test populations for COVID-19, in addition to surveilling wastewater.
- But in the absence of PCR testing, wastewater is a cheaper, scalable way to analyze the virus, especially in specific environments like airports and hospitals, Smyth says.
- The CDC is still conducting nationwide wastewater surveillance and Des Moines still samples and shares its own water results bi-weekly.
- An interesting example comes from Houston, which still breaks down its COVID numbers by zip code.
What’s next: As the public becomes less concerned about COVID, the big concern for the future is finding grants and funding to continue studying these topics and properly testing populations, Smyth says.
Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect the name of the lab is the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa, not the Iowa State Hygienic Lab.
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