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Mayo Clinic on the future of COVID-19 testing and tracking variants

"Testing will continue to be a really important factor moving forward," Mayo Clinic's Dr. Matthew Binnicker said.

ROCHESTER, Minnesota — Variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 continue to be a concern across the world. 

"We're seeing this kind of battle between the variant strain and increasing vaccination play out in real time," said Dr. Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at Mayo Clinic. 

Dr. Bobbi Pritt, chair of the division of clinical microbiology at Mayo Clinic, added, "Most of those next challenges are about these new variants that have arisen and to address those we have several different systems now for sequencing."

Testing plays a critical role in tracking the new variants. According to Dr. Binnicker, a vast majority of COVID-19 tests being used across the country will detect different strains of the virus. But identifying variants requires a sequencing test. 

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Mayo Clinic is working on three of these tests, using one of them now for patient care purposes. 

"Why would you use sequencing for clinical purposes? Right now it's primarily looking at patients that have been fully vaccinated but may have a variant that is somewhat resistant, able to overcome the protection generated from a vaccine. There may be an indication for a patient to get another vaccine if they are a vulnerable patient at high risk of getting severe COVID-19," Dr. Pritt explained. 

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The other sequencing test Mayo Clinic is currently working on is not live yet but is a test that will be used for large-scale sequencing for surveillance. It'll be used to test at least 22,000 specimens to give a better idea of the variants circulating in the community. 

A third test is being developed as a backup for clinical care as Dr. Pritt said they anticipate the demand for sequencing and identifying these variants is going to continue to increase. 

Beyond variants, the need for testing is not going away. Both doctors said there is the possibility of COVID-19 turning into a regular seasonal respiratory virus. 

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"If we come out of the pandemic and people aren't wearing masks, it could very likely be that multiple viruses will be circulating. So the state of testing will have to be able to detect and differentiate all of the different viruses," Dr. Pritt said. 

Dr. Binnicker added, "We're going to need to differentiate COVID from flu because the way we manage those patients is different. They can receive different antivirals or different management strategies so testing will continue to be a really important factor moving forward."