Coronavirus Health

The director of a research team that first detected the COVID-19 delta variant in Louisville wastewater says they haven’t yet seen signs of the new omicron variant, but that their testing is likely the first place it would show up.

Ted Smith, director at U of L’s Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil at the school’s Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute, said Wednesday that the variant was not detected in samples taken last week in Louisville. Researchers are currently testing samples taken Monday. Results are expected Friday. 

“I feel very confident, the week before Thanksgiving, we didn’t have anybody in our community with the variant,” Smith said. “So this week, if we see anything, I will be very confident that it happened in the last week.”

The team began testing in July 2020 as part of the Co-Immunity Project, a collaboration to track the spread of the disease. Earlier this year, they began sending the samples for sequencing, which is how they were able to find the delta variant before it showed up in clinical testing in the area. 

The U of L team takes wastewater samples every 15 minutes over a 24-hour period at 17 sites in Jefferson County. If they detect a new variant in the samples, state health officials can then focus on sequencing more COVID tests in that area.

Smith said it’s a good way to keep track of whether omicron, which was first identified in South Africa last week, has made it to the metro area. 

“Because everybody has their eyes on the situation, say, in South Africa where case rates are skyrocketing, we would want to have as much, we’ll call it early warning, as possible if there’s a serious health threat here,” Smith said. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) was first notified of the new variant Nov. 24, from a sample taken two weeks before. As of Thursday morning, it had been identified in more than two dozen countries. California reported the first case in the United States Wednesday.

Health officials at the WHO have said preliminary testing shows omicron could lead to increased risk for reinfection, based on the large number of mutations in the variant. So far, cases have shown mild symptoms. 

Officials have not yet concluded whether the variant is more transmissible, causes more severe symptoms or has any vaccine resistance. The organization expects it will be weeks before more robust findings are available.

 

Aprile Rickert is WFPL's health reporter.