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CDC ramping up demand for COVID-19 variant samples: states

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) appears to be ramping up states’ required submissions of COVID-19 samples in a bid to expand surveillance for mutated variants.

Word of the proposed guidance comes amid sharp criticism for the nation’s poor surveillance system and as initial cases of the more contagious strain, known as B.1.1.7, first identified in the United Kingdom crop up across the U.S.

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For its part, the CDC is “monitoring the situation closely.”

“CDC is working with state public health, academic, and commercial laboratories to increase domestic strain surveillance capacity to sequence thousands of specimens every week,” per a statement sent to Fox News. “This expands our ability to detect and characterize emerging viral variants in the United States.”

“In GISAID (a global database), there are currently 68,000 sequences from the United States. About 13,000 U.S. SARS-CoV-2 sequences were submitted to GISAID in December 2020,” the federal agency added. “At this time, the United States is now sequencing about 3,000 samples a week. CDC anticipates an estimated 3,500 additional samples per week from commercial labs in the coming days”

The mutated strain first identified in the U.K., and yet another in South Africa, both involve mutations along the virus’s spike proteins. (iStock)

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States send the federal health agency at least 10 samples on a biweekly basis through the CDC’s National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance (NS3) program, though some states do not reach that mark. New York, for example, submits five samples every two weeks through the state’s public health lab, the Wadsworth Center, one spokesperson said.

While some states told Fox News the proposed guidance to hike up required samples is still sitting in draft form, yet to be publicly released, one spokesperson from the North Dakota Department of Health disclosed the biweekly samples will increase next month based on population.

“Ten COVID-19 samples are sent to CDC biweekly for sequencing and further characterization. In February, it will increase to 17 COVID-19 samples,” Nicole Peske, chief communications officer for North Dakota Department of Health, wrote in an email to Fox News. “CDC dictates what each state sends to them. Originally they wanted 10 from each state, but in February it is changing based on population.”

A spokesperson from the Minnesota Department of Health echoed the ramping up of required samples. 

“The MN Public Health Laboratory has been sending 10 SARS-CoV-2 positive samples every two weeks to CDC as part of the National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance (NS3) program and will be increasing that number to 25 as requested by CDC,” Doug Schultz, information offer for Minnesota Department of Health, wrote in a statement. “Guidance on increasing the NS3 program is still in draft and has not yet been publicly released.”

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While Minnesota health officials over the weekend identified five cases of the U.K. variant, Schultz said those samples will be sent to the agency this week for “additional characterization of the virus.”

And health officials in Texas — which only has one reported case of the variant, according to the CDC’s count, which is likely not reflective of the true total circulating in the U.S. — confirmed the CDC has indeed proposed expanding required specimens. But as of Monday afternoon, they had not received a formal request to do so. 

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“Texas [Department of State Health Services] currently sends 10 positive specimens to CDC every two weeks for sequencing and culturing of virus,” Douglas Loveday, a spokesperson for the state health agency, told Fox News. “CDC has proposed increasing the number of specimens sent from state and local public health labs; however, at this time we have not received an official request to send more than we are currently sending.”

Fox News has requested comment from other state health departments on the issue.

California, for instance, bears the brunt of the most reported variant cases at 32 of over 70 cases across 10 states, according to the CDC. 

A more contagious coronavirus strain underscores the need for mitigation steps, like mask-wearing, hand hygiene and social distancing, experts say. (iStock)

A more contagious coronavirus strain underscores the need for mitigation steps, like mask-wearing, hand hygiene and social distancing, experts say. (iStock)

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The mutated coronavirus strain first identified in the U.K. is believed to spread between 50% to 70% more easily but is not thought to be more virulent or dodge recently approved coronavirus vaccines. Since the strain is capable of spreading more easily, health officials have urged the public to double down on mitigation steps such as wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining a safe distance from others.

A more contagious strain threatens to further burden already overwhelmed hospitals and ultimately result in additional fatalities from the novel pathogen that’s already tied to 376,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. 

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