7 Things to Know about the U.S.’s Capability to Detect Omicron
Kira Peikoff was the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org from 2017 to 2021. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @KiraPeikoff.
If the new variant Omicron isn’t here already – which many experts suspect that it is – it will be soon. While we wait for scientists to conduct the necessary research to characterize its transmissibility, potential fitness at immune evasion, and disease severity, we wanted to give Leaps.org readers a window into how the U.S. is positioned to detect the variant. So we spoke to Kelly Wroblewski, director of infectious diseases at the Association of Public Health Laboratories, a membership organization that represents state and local government health labs in the United States. Here are seven insights she shared.
1) If you test positive for COVID-19 with a standard PCR test, the diagnostic report will not tell you which variant you have. There are no diagnostic tests available for your doctor to order to identify variants. To find out the variant, the specimen must be sent to a commercial, clinical, academic, or public health laboratory for genetic sequencing.
2) Today, the U.S. sequences about 5 to 10 percent of all diagnostic specimens that test positive for SARS-CoV-2 in order to determine which variants are circulating and where. Last week nationally, for example, labs sequenced about 80,000 samples. This represents a massive increase from last year at this time, when labs were only sequencing about 8,000 specimens per week. Currently, 99.5 percent of circulating SARS-CoV-2 virus in the U.S. is the Delta variant.
3) The U.S. is “very well prepared” to detect Omicron, Wroblewski says, “particularly compared to where we were when the Alpha variant, or B117 first emerged.” Of the hunt for Omicron, she adds, “it’s very reminiscent of that time, except we are doing so much more sequencing and we have so much better coverage with our sequencing geographically, and we're doing it in a much more timely way. We have the ability to find emerging variants that are circulating in 0.01 percent of the population.”
4) Deciding which specimens to sample is not totally random. Samples that have more virus are likely to lead to better sequencing results. Labs also look to have a diverse set of representative samples, meaning across geographic regions and across gender, race, ethnicity, and age groups. Clinical diversity is also important, such as including pregnant women, severe in-patient cases, mild cases, etc.
5) Sequencing more is not necessarily better to find Omicron faster. “We will increase the number of sequences to a certain extent,” Wroblewski says. “Where we exhibit some caution is doing that indiscriminately isn’t the most effective use of time and resources. The important thing is to try to find Omicron, and if you increase your testing capacity too much, right now, it's still predominantly Delta in the U.S. by a long shot. So you’re mostly going to sequence Delta and you run the risk of delaying your discovery of Omicron, if you focus solely on increasing sequencing.”
So besides just ramping up the sheer numbers of sequencing, diagnostic labs across the country are now advised to preferentially use a certain PCR test made by Thermo Fisher that can help hasten the detection of Omicron. It turns out that Omicron’s specific mutations in the Spike protein mean that the Spike is not picked up on this PCR test, which yields a type of result called an S-gene target failure. Yet the test will still accurately pick up a COVID-19 diagnosis, because it detects two other gene targets on Omicron that are not mutated. “That S-gene target failure gives you a good indication that you may have Omicron. It’s a good early screen.”
Labs will then still need to sequence the whole genome to confirm it matches the Omicron sequence. “So right now, the new recommendation is to use [the Thermo Fisher test] as much as possible to give us a better chance of detecting Omicron more quickly.”
6) This Thermo Fisher test is “fairly widely used” in the U.S. already, so many labs are already well positioned to make the shift. “In early to mid 2020,” Wroblewski explains, “when the supply chain issue for testing was acute, many public health labs implemented five, six, seven, eight different tests, just so they could get enough supplies to do all the testing. Now that we're in a much better place supply-chain wise, it's very difficult and time consuming and cumbersome to maintain all those different test methods all the time, and many, many labs scaled back to only one or two. And so this [new recommendation] would just be shifting to two for some labs that will be shifting to them.”
7) Once Omicron is found here, labs will be focused on finding as many cases as possible, and the CDC will be conducting a variety of studies to determine the impact of the variant on diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines. Epidemiologists at the local, state, and federal level will analyze which populations it is spreading in, as well as the severity of the disease it causes. They will work to sort out different impacts on vaccinated vs. unvaccinated populations. The ultimate goal, Wroblewski concludes, is to “use all of that information to make better public health decisions and inform the public about what’s going on.”
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.