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A look inside the genome sequencing lab at Texas Children's Hospital

Dr. Jim Versalovic says tracking variants is critical in anticipating the next COVID surge.

HOUSTON — The omicron COVID-19 variant may be dominating headlines, but the delta variant remains dominant in Houston.

“Delta is still the dominant variant in the United States. We know that because we’re doing the variant tracking,” said Dr. Jim Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Several local hospitals monitor COVID variants, but the lab at Texas Children’s focuses on tracking the virus in children.

The process begins when a patient gets a nose swab to see if they have COVID-19. If they test positive, some of those samples are brought to a lab called the microbiome center for further testing.

Team members in the medical metagenomics laboratory are directed by Dr. Ruth Ann Luna. They analyze samples from mild and severe cases. They isolate and sequence the viral RNA to figure out which variant the child is infected with.

“The patients that are represented in our sample include both those patients that have to be hospitalized at Texas Children’s Hospital, as well as many of those being tested in more of a pediatrician's office-type setting or many of our clinics here in the hospital,” Dr. Luna said.

Dr. Jim Versalovic says that information is critical in anticipating the next COVID surge.

“This allows us to mobilize resources in terms of staffing and caring for outpatients. Perhaps a new influx of hospitalized children. We need to be ready for that,” he said.