CASPER – As COVID-19 variants emerge globally, Wyoming is by a wide margin leading the nation in work to identify those mutations.
Nearly 19 percent of COVID-19 tests in Wyoming are being genetically sequenced, meaning the department is analyzing the genetic base pairs that make up the virus’ DNA to identify mutations.
Washington state places second, with fewer than 8 percent of tests sequenced, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The majority of states are analyzing fewer than 3 percent of virus tests.
As more virus mutations have emerged globally, the ability to identify those outbreaks locally has become increasingly important, said state health officer and epidemiologist Dr. Alexia Harrist, who also oversees the state public health laboratory.
But how did Wyoming become a national leader?
“They had the foresight,” Harrist said. “We do use sequencing for other areas of public health,” like identifying different strains of salmonella and E.Coli.
It was for those purposes the state lab began acquiring equipment and training staff to conduct the sequencing — “well before” the pandemic arrived here.
The existing infrastructure combined with federal pandemic relief dollars enabled the lab to bolster its program even further, which Harrist credits for Wyoming’s position ahead of other states.
Just because the state is able to analyze the tests doesn’t mean it’s a simple process, though. Harrist said it can take weeks to sequence a single sample. When DNA is sequenced, it tells researchers the exact order of the chemical base pairs that make up the DNA molecule, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.
By learning the order, or sequence, of those base pairs, researchers can identify different mutations, or variants, from the original genome.
The process creates a lot of data. The SARS-CoV-2 genome (the virus that causes COVID-19) has about 30,000 base pairs. When it’s sequenced, researchers get data for each of those base pairs.
Analyzing the data takes time. That also means data available now about COVID-19 variants is likely out of date.
“We should assume there is a delay,” Harrist said, adding that “at this point, (sequencing) really is an epidemiological tool.” (Rather than something that can provide real-time data.)
Despite the delay, Harrist said they’re able to infer a good deal of information from the tests that are already sequenced. Harrist reiterated information shared by the health department last week — that the more contagious Delta variant is already considered the dominant strain now in Wyoming.
Nationally, the variant is estimated to make up more than 80 percent of new virus infections.
The state has so far identified more than 300 Delta infections here. The outbreak is concentrated in Laramie County, but cases have begun cropping up in almost every county.
That variant is considered between 50-to-60-percent more contagious than its predecessor the Alpha variant, which was already about 50-percent more contagious than the original virus strain.
It is also believed to be better at thwarting vaccines, though Harrist emphasized vaccinated individuals who do contract the Delta variant are far less likely to experience severe illness.
Harrist is now recommending vaccinated residents in counties with moderate to high virus transmission mask up again.
In addition to identifying the Delta variant, the public health laboratory has confirmed nine other notable virus mutations in Wyoming since the pandemic emerged here, though Delta is now considered the dominant strain.
Those other variants include the Alpha, or B.1.1.7, and the Gamma, or P.1 mutations. Both are considered more contagious than the initial virus strain, but neither are currently driving cases in the U.S.