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An N.J. health system can now detect highly transmissible Delta variant – nj.com

The Delta variant remains a growing threat in New Jersey.

Although COVID-19 infection rates continue falling, the highly transmissible coronavirus strain that originated in India still worries experts.

Cases of the Delta variant 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.

“Who are the people where we’re seeing this? We see it in the unvaccinated,” Perlin said of patients in HMH’s 17-hospital network.

“It’s reported at 60% greater transmission than the … U.K. variant,” he added, referring to the strain now called the Alpha variant. “So it’s a highly transmissible virus. It binds very rapidly.”

But the health system’s Center for Discovery and Innovation is now able to detect the contagious Delta variant by using a high throughput test developed months ago out of necessity.

“As we started getting flooded with the second wave, and then as variants started coming on board, we were looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of viruses a week that we had to analyze,” Perlin explained.

By December, variants were spreading across the state and the nation. Researchers at the center realized they needed a better method for sifting through samples to detect the most concerning variants, which at the time included those from the United Kingdom, South Africa (Beta) and Brazil (Gamma).

Every day, samples would pour in, hundreds of them. 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.

“We couldn’t keep up with it because sequencing is too slow,” he said. “It just takes too long.”

There had to be another way to sift through them to detect the variants and know what they were facing.

In January, the center developed its initial test to detect what were then the three primary variants of concern. Instead of genome sequencing, they used a type of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology called molecular probing technology.

“Essentially, with this test, we could, in a matter of two hours, screen hundreds of viruses,” Perlin said.

It worked like this: The Center for Discovery and Innovation 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.

But what if new variants — like Delta — continue to crop up?

Perlin said the center’s test can be adapted, just like it was in the case of the Delta strain. If a new variant emerges, researchers can merely add it to the list.

“It’s literally plug and play,” Perlin said. “We see a new sequence that’s correlating with a new variant? 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 many still unvaccinated.

“As long as we continue to have a reservoir of virus, the virus will continue to evolve,” Perlin said. “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.

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Spencer Kent may be reached at skent@njadvancemedia.com.

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