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Washington state using new technology to track COVID-19 variants

The state purchased 'next generation' technology to perform genome sequencing to track new coronavirus variants.

SEATTLE — Washington State Department of Health has started testing thousands of coronavirus samples for new COVID-19 variants. 

“This is a vital tool in quickly identifying virus mutations so that important public health decisions can be made to protect the health and safety of all those in Washington state," said State Epidemiologist for Communicable Diseases, Scott Lindquist. 

The state invested in new, next generation genome sequencing technology to perform the tests. The equipment will process samples from positive coronavirus tests. DOH said personal identifiers are removed to protect privacy. 

The state has a goal of sequencing 5% of positive coronavirus tests. The state will use its labs as well as labs at the University of Washington and Fred Hutch. 

The state has discovered two new variants of the virus, the variant from the UK (B.1.1.7.) and the variant from South Africa (B.1.351). 

Doctors with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington say people should be concerned about new variants because they make the vaccine less effective.

"Basically, it's a race against time right now," said Dr. Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the IHME and chief strategy officer for population health at UW. 

Dr. Mokdad said new variants are also dangerous because it is possible for people who already have coronavirus to get the virus again in a different form. 

"The faster we vaccinate, we will be in the better position this summer and of course before we enter winter. We expect in winter a rise in cases simply because this virus is seasonal," Mokdad said. 

In Washington, case numbers are on the decline. But in recent days there has been a plateau. Dr. Mokdad said that is evidence of new variants traveling in the community. He also said the number of people wearing a mask has decreased in the state. 

DOH said it publishes weekly coronavirus sequencing variant reports on the agency's website.