Bay Area company Helix tracking areas where new COVID-19 variant is spreading

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A Bay Area company is working with the CDC to identify cases of the new coronavirus variant in the United States.

The more contagious variant, which was first observed in the United Kingdom, has already been detected in eight U.S. states, including California.

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San Mateo-based Helix has partnered with Illumina to sequence the genetic material from positive COVID-19 tests, hoping to more quickly identify areas where the variant is spreading.

"Viral sequencing or viral surveillance is one of the tools we have not used as much as we should have during the pandemic," said James Lu, President of Helix.

He said they are working to sequence about 1,000 samples a day, which is much more than the U.S. had previously been testing, but Lu said the goal is much higher.

"The U.K., which is the world leader in viral surveillance, sequences about 7% of all positive cases," said Lu.

If the U.S. were to test the same percentage, he said that would be about 10,000 genomic sequences per day.

"I believe almost certainly we are not doing enough genetic testing for the virus in the US," said Dr. Charles Chiu, a UCSF Professor of Laboratory Medicine, who's lab has identified two of the variant cases in San Bernardino.

While the CDC had set up a consortium known as SPHERES for public and private research institutions to submit test results, Chiu said, so far, the effort to conduct viral surveillance across the country has been "fragmented."

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The effect of that has been an ability for the variant to spread undetected.

"While it's still at a low level it may be possible to stop it from spreading widely," said Chiu, but only if testing is ramped up and outbreaks can be swiftly identified.

The collaboration between Helix and Illumina has identified 51 of the first 54 cases of the B. 1.1.7 variant in the U.S.

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