Can Existing COVID-19 Tests Detect New Variants?

When it comes to both tests and vaccines, there’s a lot of cause for optimism.

February 22, 2021

As vaccine rollout continues, a new threat is emerging in the form of variant strains. Let’s explore some of the most pressing questions about variants and how vaccines and testing could help prevent their spread. 

First of all, what is a variant?

As viruses spread, they copy themselves to go from one person to the next. Each time a virus copies itself, it can undergo mutations. Mutation is the word we use to describe slight changes in genetic information from one copy to the next. There’s not a strict definition of how many mutations need to occur before we consider something a variant. However, we usually consider something a variant when it’s changed enough to have different characteristics or behaviors. 

Things like “ability to spread” and “ability to cause more severe illness” are behaviors we care about and should track! Identifying and tracking the genetic changes of COVID-19 can help us understand and fight back against new variants.

What do we know so far about COVID-19 variants? 

Remember: as a virus moves through a population, it copies itself. An interesting thing about the way biology works is that this copying is imperfect. Small changes can be introduced into the virus’ genetic information. Often, these changes don’t have any effect at all on the virus. Sometimes, they harm it! But, occasionally, the change is an improvement…at least from the virus’ point of view. An improvement from the virus’ point of view could be spreading from human to human more easily. 

The more infections there are, the more often the virus copies itself. The more often it copies itself, the more imperfect copies it makes—creating new variants. As you might expect, given the number of COVID-19 cases worldwide, many mutations have occurred. These have led to a handful of new variants of the virus across the world.

Three variants that were first detected in the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil are particularly concerning. Initial reports suggest that they spread more rapidly, so public health experts are working quickly to learn more about these variants and understand how they might impact our response strategies. 

Are the current COVID vaccines effective against new variants? 

Ginkgo’s partner Moderna reported that its existing vaccine is effective against both the U.K. and South Africa variants. Pfizer’s vaccine is similarly promising for both strains. Moderna is also developing an additional booster dose to defend against new strains. 

These two vaccines are the first widely available mRNA vaccines… 

Hold on. What is mRNA?

The ‘m’ stands for ‘messenger’ and RNA is a type of molecule. So, mRNA is a messenger molecule! Our bodies use different mRNA molecules as tiny messengers to tell our cells to make things. When the cells in our bodies make proteins — like when our bodies build muscle proteins after working out, mRNA provides the instructions for what to make. 

These mRNA COVID vaccines work by telling cells to make a small, harmless protein that the virus also makes. Lucky for us, our immune systems are great at detecting small things like proteins and determining if they’re from a friend or foe. So the vaccine gives our immune systems a heads up, an early warning of sorts. The mRNA teaches our bodies to recognize the virus before actually encountering it. That way, we can neutralize the real virus if it enters our bodies.

Why are we using this new type of vaccine?

The big benefit of mRNA vaccines is they take much less time to make than conventional vaccines. That’s why it was possible to make these vaccines in less than a year. It also means that if we need to make new vaccines against new variants, we can do that much more quickly too.

The extraordinary success of these vaccines is due to recent advances in biotechnology. That isn’t just important for COVID-19, it also marks a milestone for realizing the potential of biotechnology and signals a very promising future.

Can existing tests identify new variants?

Testing is a cornerstone of responding to a pandemic, allowing us to quickly catch positive cases before a larger outbreak occurs. Understandably, there is concern about whether existing tests could miss new variants, leading to greater spread. 

The Food & Drug Administration notes that while “molecular tests are typically highly sensitive for the detection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” false negatives are a possibility for any test. When it comes to the new variants, the FDA says, “while the evaluation of analytical sensitivity has demonstrated some impact, the FDA believes the risk that these mutations will impact clinical sensitivity is low.” 

In other words, when it comes to clinical sensitivity, meaning whether the test can tell if a person is sick, there’s a low risk that the variants will have a negative impact. The good news is, even if a variant pops up that can’t be detected by current tests, it’s relatively simple to re-design a PCR test, although it may take some time.

What can we do to limit the spread of new variants? 

Here’s the silver lining – we’ve had almost an entire year to understand what works and what doesn’t. Although it may take some tweaking, a lot of what we’ve learned will still be applicable to new variants. Dr. Eric Toner, a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, recently mentioned another big upside. As vaccines become more available, cases should become less frequent. If the virus has less chances to copy itself, it has less chances to mutate. That means that if we keep testing and vaccinating people, new variants should pop up less and less frequently.

“I’m not in panic mode,” said Dr. Toner. “We will get out of this pandemic.”

We understand that COVID-19 testing can be an overwhelming task. Our goal is to make testing as easy and painless as possible, so that we can all get back to living our lives. If you’re interested in bringing testing to your school or district, don’t hesitate to reach out.