movement of virus lineages

SHREVEPORT, La. – With only a few cases of the UK variant of the COVID-19 virus reported in Louisiana so far, those tasked with doing the testing in Shreveport are keeping a close eye locally.

Someone who would probably be among the first to know about it is Dr. Chris Kevil with the LSU Health Center of Excellence for Emerging Viral Threats. To date, the center has performed about 65 percent of the state’s virus sequencing – a method to tract the strains.

Sequencing the virus is important because it identifies new variants of the virus that come out that may resist vaccinations, are more transmittable or more deadly, Kevil told a Caddo Commission committee this week.

“We have a very robust surveillance, viral sequencing surveillance program in place,” Kevil said.

Viral sequencing tracks the movement of the virus lineages or where it has spread across the country. The center has been able to identify the strain unique to the North Louisiana area and has tracked it as others have taken it to other parts of the country.

In a chart, Kevil displayed the connection between Shreveport and Baton Rouge in terms of the virus. But there’s not as much spread of the virus between New Orleans and Shreveport. The same chart also shows how the virus has been taken from the Shreveport-Bossier City area throughout the U.S.

“And that’s critical because if we don’t know where they’re going it’s hard to figure out … where a certain mutant is or where a certain variant is,” Kevil said.

As of Sunday night, neither the UK variant nor variants from South Africa or Brazil have showed up locally. It doesn’t mean they are not here, but so far they’ve not surfaced, Kevil said.

The key to keeping up with that is to have robust genome sequencing in place so those strains can be identified if or when they do show up, Kevil aid.

“The virus is indeed changing and we have to constantly follow it,” he said.

It is possible North Louisiana has created it’s own variant? Maybe, said Kevil, pointing to similarities in the testing results. But he doesn’t know that for sure.

It’s not unheard of, though. In California, there is evidence they may have their own variant, he said.

“As the virus goes through the population it will enviably change,” he said. “What pushes the variant to change is the host. If the host’s immune system is strong then the virus doesn’t have a chance to mutate.”

However, those without a strong immune system can test positive multiple times. The virus in that person has a chance to change and undergo mutation.

“If there is a virus that changes and happens to acquire a better ability to infect people then that virus will have an opportunity to spread,” Kevil said.

But he expects to see over time if a Shreveport variant develops. All variants – even those in the UK, South Africa and Brazil – also will change over time.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said the possibility of the UK variant being the dominant strain in the U.S. and Louisiana is possible. He is urging Louisianans to follow mitigation measures to slow the spread.

"We all need to take this very seriously. We see some improvements but we are in a very difficult place. These variants are very concerning," Edwards said.

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