Expert shares lessons from 2 years of COVID variants in Arizona

Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2022 - 3:44pm
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Arizona State University
Joshua LaBaer

Two years have passed since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Arizona. In a press briefing Wednesday, ASU Biodesign executive director Joshua LaBaer shared lessons learned and mysteries still unresolved.

"In my career as a physician and as a medical researcher, this is the first time that I've ever seen a new disease enter the pantheon of human diseases that has had such an incredibly profound effect on the health of so many people. It's just a staggering effect," he said.

LaBaer said the pandemic underscores the limits of knowledge and the dangers of assumptions.

"Early on, I heard really smart people say, 'Oh, we should just go get it,' when we when we had less than six months of experience with this brand new disease. Sweden took on this philosophy of just letting people get infected, which turned out to be disastrous," he said.

Citing the rapid development of tests and vaccines, he said, “as a community, we can do great things,” but are limited by difficulties evaluating risk and reaching consensus and by biology’s relentless capacity to mutate and make variants like omicron.

"The fact that we've gone through multiple variants of this virus, and each of those variants has had a slightly different effect and different behavior, means that it's very hard to put a pin on something and say, 'This is what we can expect,'" said LaBaer.

ASU virologist Efrem Lim says that’s why continued surveillance is so vital.

“Because, once we catch these things, we can always update our tests, update our vaccines and treatments and so forth,” he said.

ASU has so far detected 29 cases of the BA-2 omicron variant in Arizona, compared to 7,000 cases of vanilla BA-1 omicron. Sometimes called “stealth omicron” due to a mutation that lets it escape detection by older tests. BA-2 is detectable by newer tests and by the whole-genome sequencing done at ASU and elsewhere.

BA-2 has not taken off like its sister variant, but Lim says that could change, especially since experts don’t know the effects of its 30 unique mutations. 

“The reason why we are tracking that though is, in other parts of the world, for example, in Denmark, they are seeing BA-2 climbing up and competing with the BA-1 variant. But clearly we're not seeing that right now,” said Lim.

Coronavirus Science