How is Missouri tracking omicron? We talked to a researcher testing wastewater

·3 min read

Missouri scientists are testing wastewater at nearly 100 locations throughout the state in search of the new mutation of the virus that causes COVID-19. Known as the omicron variant, this strain was identified in Canada on Monday, Nov. 29.

Wastewater samples provide an early indication of new variants’ presence in communities, and were used to monitor the delta variant’s arrival in Missouri earlier this year.

While it has not yet been detected in the U.S, officials predict that the variant’s arrival is only a matter of time. We talked to Dr. Marc Johnson, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine to learn more about how scientists are keeping tabs on the omicron variant in Missouri.

This story is from The Star’s new Service Journalism team. We’re here to share information that makes it easier to navigate local challenges and participate in the Kansas City community. Have a question for us? Fill out the form at the bottom of this story.

Who is testing Missouri’s wastewater?

Wastewater facilities around the state collect water samples from sewage systems on a weekly basis using automated machinery. These samples are then sent to the University of Missouri, where two labs study the virus particles in the water to see which variants are present.

How does wastewater get tested for new variants?

Two labs are involved in the testing process, and it gets a little technical. First, one lab removes all the solids, bacteria and anything else larger than a viral particle from the wastewater samples. Then, a second lab takes RNA from the remaining material and “sequences” it to identify the variants in the virus.

Much like DNA are the building blocks that make up the genetics of many living things, RNA are the building blocks that make up the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. “Sequencing” is the process of taking a closer look at those building blocks to determine which specific mutation of SARS-CoV-2 is present.

How will researchers know they’ve found the omicron variant?

Researchers say the omicron variant will be easy to spot if it appears in Missouri’s wastewater.

“It’s got such a distinct fingerprint, it will be hard to miss,” said Johnson, who runs the University of Missouri lab that sequences RNA from the state’s wastewater samples.

“We focus on a portion of the genome where the most mutations accumulate,” he said. “With alpha and delta, we looked for two mutations. With omicron, there are 12 mutations in that same region. So it will stick out like a sore thumb if it appears.”

What happens if the omicron variant is detected?

It’s still too early to say what effects the omicron variant will cause in Missouri and around the country. Johnson said that the return of mask mandates, the development of new vaccines and other public health measures will depend on how sick the new variant makes people.

“I think it’s certainly possible that some of the old restrictions might have to come back,” he said. “I think it’s too soon to say.”

How do I stay safe from the omicron variant?

The best defense against any new variants is to be fully vaccinated and get a booster shot.

“The advice hasn’t changed,” said Johnson. “If you haven’t been vaccinated, now is a good time to do it, because even though this lineage might have some resistance [to current vaccines], you’re always better off having been vaccinated.”

COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots are available for free around Kansas City. Everyone over the age of 5 is eligible to be vaccinated, while all fully vaccinated adults are eligible for a booster shot. Find local vaccination locations here and get tested for COVID-19 here.

“The vaccine is tremendously good at keeping people alive,” said Johnson. “It doesn’t get enough credit for just how amazingly good it has been.”

Do you have more questions about the omicron variant or staying safe from COVID-19 in Kansas City? Ask our Service Journalism team at kcq@kcstar.com or fill out the form below.

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