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Scientist’s hunch put Bermuda ahead of Omicron testing curve

Carika Weldon, director at the Bermuda Molecular Diagnostics and Research Laboratory (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

A scientist’s hunch nine months ago put the island’s Covid-19 test programme ahead of the curve in quickly tracking the Omicron variant of the virus.

The new strain was second-guessed earlier this year by Bermudian geneticist Carika Weldon of the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory.

Dr Weldon said in a post on social media that the lab had ordered stocks of the PCR test in February that was capable of detecting a signature mutation very close to a hallmark of the Omicron variant.

She posted on Twitter that she had followed her instincts on assigning the specific test “when no strain then was detectable on it because I had a strong feeling eventually one would emerge”.

It is now a variant PCR test that can spot Omicron, a mutated version of the coronavirus that appears to be more virulent than other strains.

There have been 16 positive cases identified on the island so far.

All are being monitored by public health officials and none required hospital treatment.

Dr Weldon explained online that the test developed nine months ago struck the right location on the virus out of “30,000 positions that could’ve mutated in this new variant”.

She added: “Essentially, we had the variant PCR test to detect Omicron – in an hour – nine months before it was discovered.”

The Omicron strain caused alarm after its discovery last month by scientists in South Africa because of its large number of mutations.

Its 60 differences included 32 on the coronavirus’s spike protein – the same area targeted by vaccines – as well as the immune system’s antibodies developed in response to infection.

Spike proteins are jutting structures on the outer shell of the coronavirus, responsible for the “crown” form that led to its name.

Coronaviruses in humans cause respiratory illnesses, including varieties of the common cold.

The variation Dr Weldon highlighted, N439K, was close enough to Omicron’s N440K mutation – on the spike protein itself – to enable MDL’s supply of tests from the manufacturer to identify the latest variant.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that existing vaccines should protect against severe illness and death in Omicron variation cases.

The agency said the finding underscored the importance of vaccination and booster jabs.

But the CDC warned the variant was “likely” to result in breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people.

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Published December 15, 2021 at 1:06 pm (Updated December 15, 2021 at 1:06 pm)

Scientist’s hunch put Bermuda ahead of Omicron testing curve

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