Over three weeks in Arizona, the omicron variant jumped from 1% to 52% of positive cases

By Melina Walling | Arizona Republic

On Dec. 20, Grace Quirk picked up seven vials of saline-diluted saliva from her lab manager at the University of Arizona. Then she was alone — alone except for some “tube(s) of people’s spit,” a pipette, a computer and an Oxford Nanopore genetic sequencing machine.

Several hours later, still in the empty lab at 3:30 in the morning, she had the answer she was looking for: One of the coronavirus samples she had just sequenced was the new variant, omicron. It was the first omicron case on her campus, and she had been the one to run the test.

“You’re just in this room that you’ve been in all day, and then something happens and you’re the only person in the world that knows something,” said Quirk, a third-year PhD student studying viral genetics at the University of Arizona.

She emailed her adviser, professor and head of ecology and evolutionary biology Michael Worobey, to send him the data. Then she was back in the lab by 7 a.m., checking to see whether the computer had confirmed what they expected for the rest of the samples. It had. The data she had left to run overnight showed that all six of the other samples were the omicron variant, too.

Quirk said it felt urgent to finish the samples that night because public health experts, including university administrators, rely on sequencing data to shape guidance for their communities. “It’s cool to be doing something where somebody is going to care if I stayed five extra hours or if I went home,” she said.

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