Although COVID-19 infection rates continue falling, the highly transmissible “Delta” coronavirus mutation of the strain still worries experts.
Cases of the Delta mutation, which originated in India, have risen 20% to 25% in the past month among the samples Hackensack Meridian Health has received, according to Dr. David Perlin, chief scientific officer and senior vice president at its Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI).
“Who are the people where we’re seeing this? We see it in the unvaccinated,” Perlin says of patients in Hackensack Health Care’s 17-hospital network.
But the CDI is now able to detect the Delta mutation by using a high throughput test developed months ago. Researchers at the center realized they needed a better method for sifting through samples to detect the most concerning mutations, which at the time included those from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.
Researchers tried to keep up. But the sequencing technology they were using was just too slow — it could take an entire day to analyze only a handful of samples, Perlin said. There had to be another way to sift through them to detect the mutations and know what they were facing.
In January, CDI developed its initial test — instead of genome sequencing, they used a type of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) known as molecular probing technology.
It worked like this: The CDI partnered with Quest Diagnostics, which would process all the COVID-19 tests conducted at the health system’s various facilities around the state. Quest would then send all the positive tests to the center. Researchers would then analyze those tests to detect any variants.
“Essentially, with this test, we could, in a matter of two hours, screen hundreds of viruses,” Perlin says.
Even better, Perlin says the center’s test can be adapted, just like it was in the case of the Delta strain. If a new mutation emerges, researchers can merely add it to the list. “It’s literally plug and play — we see a new sequence that’s correlating with a new mutation? We just plug it into our system, and we’re off and running.”
Despite the positive signs in recent months, Perlin says it’s critical to stay on top of the virus and monitor it, especially with so many still unvaccinated.
“As long as we continue to have a reservoir of virus, the virus will continue to evolve,” Perlin says. “And what we’ve learned is that this virus is not quitting.”
The best we can hope for, he said, is to keep pace with the virus. “And now, in fact, we have the tools to be able to do that,” he added.