OMAHA — Researchers in Nebraska had just finished sequencing six samples of the Omicron variant, the most discovered anywhere in the United States. They just didn’t know it yet.
In a closet-size room with two chairs and no windows, the scientists had extracted the genetic information from 64 new coronavirus samples, as they do every day, to determine whether any of those patients might have the worrisome new variant. Hours later, Dr. Baha Abdalhamid opened an email and saw the results.
“This batch, I was waiting for it,” said Dr. Abdalhamid, the assistant director of the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory. “Once I downloaded the results as an Excel sheet, I screened the 64 samples right away, and sure enough, six of them were Omicron.” Nebraska officials announced the six cases, the state’s first, on Friday.
Around the world, scientists are racing to understand how widespread Omicron is and how severe a threat it may pose. That has placed labs like Dr. Abdalhamid’s on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
said that among the cases Dr. Abdalhamid found, one person had recently traveled to Nigeria and was believed to have passed the virus on to the five others in the same household after returning to Nebraska. None of the patients has had severe symptoms; only one had been vaccinated.
announced a case. Then on Thursday came an announcement in Minnesota about a person who tested positive after attending an anime convention in New York. Within hours, five cases had been found in New York, as well as one in Colorado and another in Hawaii.
On Friday, more cases emerged, including one each in Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Utah and three in Maryland. Many, but not all, of the cases had been linked to travel.
All that adds urgency to the work in the Omaha lab, situated behind locked doors in a research building at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Each day, researchers there extract RNA from 64 nasal swabs sent in from across the state and run that material through two machines that, after about 18 hours, produce a genetic sequence for each infection.
They focus on the highest-risk cases: Those involving large outbreaks or children or international travelers. The results, which are uploaded into a global database, show them which variants are present in the state and whether individual cases are linked to one another. When a New York Times reporter and photographer visited the lab on Thursday, the scientists had just finished sequencing the samples that included the six Omicron cases but had not yet examined the results.