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Arizona virologists work to get one step ahead of COVID-19 mutations

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Posted at 5:06 PM, Sep 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-11 20:06:36-04

Experts say the delta variant is, by far, the most dominant strain of COVID in the world.

Now virologists are working around the clock to predict if another mutation will be more aggressive.

ABC15 got an exclusive look inside a COVID-19 sequencing lab at the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute.

Efrem Lim is a virologist and associate professor at ASU. He says hundreds of samples are being processed and studied daily in the lab.

This is done to stay one step ahead of the virus.

“We’re trying to get a leg up, on any way we can, on this virus,” Lim told ABC15.

He says he grew up in Singapore and lived through the first SARS epidemic.

Though he never thought he would go through it again in the United States.

“I did not expect us to be working on this seven days a week, thinking about this all the time,” he added.

He says, for the last three months, ASU has done the majority of COVID-19 sequencing for Arizona.

“This allows us to capture all 30,000 nucleotides of the virus genome. It tells us what mutations are coming up, what new mutations may cause issues with diagnostics,” said Lim.

It also allows them to see if the virus is evading vaccine responses.

He says the sequencing process has definitely been a team effort.

“This involves TGen, NAU, U of A and ASU.”

Dr. Dave Engelthaler is the Director of the Pathogen Genomics Division at TGen North.

He says the delta variant is the king of the hill when it comes to transmission.

“It just transmits so much faster than any virus that we’ve seen to date,” said Dr. Engelthaler.

Engelthaler says the biggest concern now is stumbling onto a new variant that can evade antibodies and the body’s immune system.

“That’s not happened yet, but it’s one of the things we’re looking for,” Engelthaler told ABC15.

Dr. Engelthaler says this process will help them better understand the virus, and its mutations.

“We’re actually trying to learn about the past, the present and maybe predict the future...because it’s become the most important pandemic certain in our lifetimes,” said Engelthaler.

Now the question becomes, will this virus ever go away?

“The answer is it will,” assured Lim.

Though both Lim and Dr. Engethaler say that can only happen if people wear masks and get vaccinated.

“The vaccines are still incredibly effective, especially those mRNA vaccines, they’re holding up really well against all the variants that are up there,” said Engelthaler.

“When enough people get vaccinated, the virus has less chance to transmit. Less transmission means less mutations...less variants, and we can get the virus under control,” Lim told ABC15.