Raleigh lab is 1 of dozens in US sequencing COVID-19 samples in search of variants like omicron

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- A laboratory in Raleigh is at the forefront in detecting changes to the COVID-19 virus in the United States.

Mako Medical is located off Durant Road near US 1, and it processes thousands of COVID-19 tests from 40 states every single day.

"30,000 per day is how many were processing right now. So that's about 100,000 or so per week," Matthew Tugwell, Director of Genomics at Mako Medical, said.

With the first case of the omicron variant confirmed in the U.S. the effort to track the virus has intensified.

Labs like Mako are key in detecting the omicron variant in the United States because of what they do after identifying a positive test.

"As of right now we are at the point where we're sequencing every positive that we get," Tugwell said.

Mako Medical uses a processes called Genomic sequencing, that reveals the precise genetic lineage of the virus, and is currently the only way to identify new COVID-19 variants.

Mako is one of just over 60 labs capable of doing the sequencing for the CDC's national strain surveillance network. The World Health Organization and the CDC declared omicron a "variant of concern" last week after it was flagged by scientists in south Africa.

"I would say it takes between two to three days to actually fully get the sequence from confirming a sample is positive, to library prepping the DNA and then to actually sequencing that library," said Lauren Moon, Sequencing Manager at MAKO Medical.
A mutation in the omicron variant causes a peculiar test result called an S-gene drop out.

"M-gene is the blue curve and then the green curve, is the S-gene." Lauren Moon explained.

Tugwell said Mako has about six samples right now that have that signature S-gene; but because omicron isn't the only variant with that type of marker, sequencing is required to confirm.

Scientists at Mako have seen many different variants throughout the pandemic. Some, like delta, become the dominate strain, while others fade quickly or never take off. Right now there is no way to know what type of impact omicron could have on the US, but scientist agree that when it comes to cracking COVID-19, knowledge is power.

"Every time it transmits from a person to another person, it's another chance for the virus to mutate and change (into) something different. So you know, being able to monitor it really highlights the importance of testing, right? Because without the testing really have no baseline to understand what's going on," Tugwell said.
Copyright © 2022 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.