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Connecticut has eight cases of U.K. coronavirus variant. Finding others involves sophisticated genetic testing.

Connecticut has at least eight cases of the more highly contagious strain of the coronavirus, and state officials say there are likely more.

But identifying who is infected with the so-called U.K. variant involves sophisticated genetic testing that is both time-consuming and expensive.

Only a handful of labs in Connecticut currently have the ability to screen for the U.K. or other variants, let alone do the genetic testing, said Dr. Jafar Razeq, head of Connecticut’s state laboratory.

The U.S. as a whole is lagging behind in these surveillance efforts, which public health experts say are key to identifying mutations of the virus that could be more highly transmissible, make people more sick or evade vaccines. Experts expect the U.K. variant to be predominant in the U.S. in March.

“The yes/no answer for infection was great throughout 2020. We now need to be able to ask these more sophisticated questions about what exactly is circulating in the state,” said Mark Adams, professor and deputy director at The Jackson Laboratory in Farmington.

Late last year, when news began circulating that a more highly contagious strain of the virus was spreading in the U.K, Jackson Lab became one of the only places in Connecticut to start screening positive COVID-19 samples for the U.K. variant.

The lab is responsible for about 20% to 25% of all COVID-19 tests administered in the state, and is one of few labs that have the tests capable of screening for the U.K. variant, a process that involves looking for mutations in the virus's genome. Once it identifies those mutations indicating the potential for the U.K. variant, the lab then does genetic testing on the samples to confirm.

The lab has performed genetic testing on 21 positive samples so far, and confirmed only three of them were the U.K. variant, "so it's still quite rare in the state," Adams said. Another batch of samples is being tested, he said.

The lab is in the process of developing a system to more quickly detect if someone has the U.K. variant or other mutations of the virus, and that would enable the analysis to be done faster and on a wider scale, Adams said.

Razeq said the state lab over the past several weeks has received a portion of the positive samples from other labs in the state that don't have the capability to screen for the U.K. variant. Any samples that meet the "candidacy criteria" are sent to Jackson Lab or Yale for genetic testing.

"It's impossible to test every single positive case, so we are trying to test a representative sample coming from different geographical locations around the state," Razeq said.

A portion of the positive samples are being sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be analyzed.

Regardless of whether someone has a more contagious strain of the virus, the public health messaging is the same, Adams and Razeq said: keep wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands.  

"The same mechanisms worked with previous variants and they should work with the current and any new variants," Razeq said. "There's no magic solution until we have everybody vaccinated and the vaccine works and we are good to go."

j.bergman@theday.com

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