Nevada State Public Health Laboratory detects new COVID-19 strain B.1.1.7 in Nevada

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A photo of a Nevada State Public Health Laboratory scientist at work

The Nevada State Public Health Laboratory is responsible for COVID-19 testing and whole genome sequencing of the COVID-19 virus in Nevada. Photo by Brin Reynolds/UNR Med.

The Nevada State Public Health Laboratory (NSPHL) at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine (UNR Med) has characterized the first known Nevada case of the new B.1.1.7 coronavirus strain. The new strain was detected in a sample that was initially tested in the Southern Nevada Public Health Laboratory (SNPHL).

The specimen was collected during routine community collection activities and tested by SNPHL to determine if it was positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. During testing, it was discovered the specimen was showing characteristics of the variant. It was then sent to NSPHL for sequencing and confirmation.

The NSPHL sequenced the specimen on Thursday, Jan. 21 and analyzed the data that detected the new strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in Nevada on Friday, Jan. 22.

The B.1.1.7 strain first emerged in the U.K. in fall 2020 and has become highly prevalent in certain geographical regions according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since December 2020, several other countries, Canada and the United States among them, have reported cases of the virus variant.

Nevada State Public Health Laboratory Director Mark Pandori, Ph.D. said the lab detected the case as part of its B.1.1.7 strain testing program.   The B.1.1.7 strain was found in a specimen from a symptomatic woman in her 30s, with an address in Las Vegas.

Dr. Pandori says this strain is more contagious, but it is not yet known whether the variant causes a more severe illness than the reference COVID-19 strain.

"It is copying itself a lot right now, which can lead to mutating," says Pandori. "The more a virus spreads in a community, the more opportunities it has to make mistakes when it copies itself. This leads to what we see here and it's a very natural part of viral evolution."

The Nevada State Public Health Laboratory has been analyzing positive COVID-19 virus samples for the B.1.1.7 strain since mid-December 2020 through whole genome sequencing. The lab is currently working on surveilling as many positive COVID-19 cases as it can for the new B.1.1.7 strain. This surveillance will continue on a daily basis throughout the pandemic.

The Nevada State Public Health Laboratory is using CARES Act funds to purchase equipment that helps them identify mutations within any and all viruses through genetic sequencing. With the new equipment, scientists now have the ability to screen positive cases for the genetics associated with any variants of interest, including the U.K. and South Africa variants, to determine if the new strains are found in Nevada.

While research and scientific advancements continue to build, Pandori says continuing to follow the recommended guidelines of staying home when you can, wearing facial coverings, frequent and proper hand-washing, social distancing, as well as wide-scale testing, contact tracing, and isolation of new cases is among the effective ways we can fight the virus and its variants.

"This is a novel disease. We still have a steep learning curve ahead and lots of work to do, especially as inconvenient truths arise," says Pandori.  

- @unrmed -

The Nevada State Public Health Lab was established in 1909 and serves as Nevada's centralized lab, representing a first line of defense in the rapid detection of a public health threat. The NSPHL conducts disease surveillance, emergency response, environmental health, food safety and newborn screening for the State of Nevada and its citizens. For more information, visit med.unr.edu/nsphl


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Julie Ardito, APR
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Email: news@med.unr.edu
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The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Nevada's first public medical school, is a community-based, research-intensive medical school with a statewide vision for a healthy Nevada. Established in 1969, UNR Med is improving the health and well-being of all Nevadans and their communities through excellence in student education, postgraduate training and clinical care, research with local, national and global impact and a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Released: Monday January 25, 2021 @ 11:15 AM