More contagious COVID-19 variant 'likely' in NC, potentially producing false-negative tests

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- North Carolina Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen warned on Friday that the COVID-19 variant, first detected in the United Kingdom, is likely here in the state now. This comes as the FDA is looking at the potential impact mutations can have on COVID-19 testing and the potential for a false negative.

The COVID-19 variant has turned London into a ghost town. The more highly-contagious variant forced the UK into a third lockdown.

"As far as the variant, it is possible that the variant is here. In fact, it is likely," Dr. Cohen said at Friday's coronavirus briefing.

At Mako Medical, a Triangle-based clinical laboratory with labs in Henderson and Raleigh that's conducted over 4 million COVID-19 tests since the pandemic began, the new variant was already on the radar.

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"It was very concerning when we first heard about it," said Steve Hoover, Mako's Vice-President of Operations.

Hoover addressed the growing concerns over the variant triggering inaccurate test results: a person who tests negative for COVID-19 but is positive for the new strain -- continuing to spread it, believing they're healthy

"From our standpoint, we don't have any concern about that," Hoover said. "We're running the best PCR (polymerase chain reaction) technology on the market."

He said while some COVID-19 tests only check for one or two of the genes present in the novel coronavirus, Mako's lab tests for three genes. He also said the UK strain suppresses the so-called S gene of the virus. But he believes Mako's more robust test lessens the potential of a false negative.

"By testing the three genes we're able to pick up the positive tests so you don't miss anything," he said.

So far, there have been no confirmed reports of the UK strain in North Carolina. But, Hoover says Mako Medical labs have seen about 60 samples where the S gene has dropped out of the gene sequence. It's possible that could be the mutation. Mako is expecting to get that data back on Monday.
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