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Creighton’s COVID-19 Research Successfully Identifies Variants

Jun 7, 2021
5 min Read
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The effort to detect COVID-19 “variants of concern” has been underway at Creighton University since early April.

Michael Belshan, PhD, a virologist and professor of medical microbiology and immunology at the Creighton University School of Medicine, says approximately 960 COVID-19 samples were tested between early April and late May and that variants were detected.

Detection is crucial in the fight against COVID-19 as a COVID case becomes a priority for contact tracing if a variant is discovered.

Creighton is one of three labs in the state identifying COVID-19 variants for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Positive samples from CHI Health COVID-19 testing sites were examined at Creighton’s lab, through a state-of-art sequencer that can identify known and unknown variants of the COVID-19 virus.

Contractual restrictions prevent him from naming the variants detected, or stating their number, but Belshan said Creighton’s collaboration with CHI Health and DHHS has yielded useful information.

“I can say that over the course of those 10 weeks our efforts led to the detection of variants of concern that aided DHHS in their efforts to monitor the presence of these variants in the state and perform contact tracing,” he says.

Gary Anthone, MD, director of public health and chief medical officer for the State of Nebraska, said the Creighton/CHI Health collaboration has boosted understanding of the disease’s variants.

“The variant detection work that Creighton and CHI Health have performed has helped the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services understand the occurrence of these variants and the epidemiology of different strains of COVID in our state,” he says.

The contract between DHHS, Creighton University and CHI Health, announced April 7, is nearing its end.

“It's been a very successful collaboration,” said Maureen Tierney, MD, assistant dean for public health and clinical research at the Creighton’s School of Medicine. “It has been working very smoothly. We are providing variant detection information on a weekly basis.”

Tierney is working along with Belshan and DHHS to extend the collaboration to a full year.

Creighton’s COVID-19 analysis has been a joint effort between faculty and staff, Belshan said, involving Belshan; Holly Stessman, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology; Richard Goering, PhD, professor of medical microbiology and immunology; students Cynthia Watson and Dylan Deeney; and technician, Sam Anderson.

Tierney and Renuga Vivekanandan, MD, associate professor of medicine at Creighton, have also assisted by providing consultative epidemiological advice to DHHS on the interpretation of the results of variant sequencing.

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