Can omicron be stopped by current vaccine? Bay Area leads race to produce new variant's DNA

ATUM in Newark is leading the charge amid urgent demand to get the omicron DNA.

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Wednesday, December 1, 2021
Bay Area leading race to produce COVID variant omicron's DNA
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ATUM in Newark was the biotech lab that key researchers turned to when the delta variant emerged. Now there's urgent demand to get the omicron DNA.

NEWARK, Calif. (KGO) -- The race is underway to produce and use the omicron variant's DNA to determine how well existing vaccines work against it, ahead of the first case surfacing in the U.S. The Bay Area is playing a key role in that.

ATUM in Newark was the biotech lab that key researchers turned to when the delta variant emerged. Now there's urgent demand to get the omicron DNA.

"We want to know as quickly as possible, are the vaccines we've all been taking... is the Moderna and the BioNTech vaccines, are they sufficient to capture omicron or not? We don't really know," said Dr. Claes Gustafsson, ATUM's co-founder.

RELATED: US gears up for possible cases of omicron as 1st cases detected in Canada

Orders started coming in Friday. ATUM can take the raw omicron data and produce thousands upon thousands of tubes with a single DNA sequence. From that, multiple copies can be made. Pharmaceutical companies will use the DNA to test the effectiveness of their vaccines. Others will determine how well antibody therapies work and whether diagnostic tests can identify omicron.

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One-hundred-fifty research associates have made this their top priority, speeding up the process from two weeks to mere days.

"It takes us five days from when we take the order as a virtual sequence until we put something in a UPS envelope and ship it out to the customer," said Gustafsson.

About a third of the orders are from Bay Area biotech customers. Another third are headed to the Boston area. And the rest is destined for labs in 100 countries overseas.

Omicron may undergo mutations as its tries to invade human cells, so ATUM will need to be alert for those variations.

RELATED: UK, Germany, Italy report cases of new COVID variant omicron

"We can take that DNA sequence and based off that DNA sequence we can assemble all of the different proteins, all the surface molecules that sit on the virus," said Gustafsson.

While the pressure is on to produce more of the DNA samples, there is a supply chain issue that's hitting this industry as well. Plastic bottles and other containers are in short supply, but suppliers are making sure because of the importance of this research that these vital tools are getting to ATUM.