COVID-19: From delta to omicron, here’s how scientists know which coronavirus variants are circulating in the US

The omicron variant quickly took over the global coronavirus landscape after it was first reported in South Africa in late November, 2021. The U.S. became the 24th country to report a case of omicron infection when health officials announced on Dec. 1, 2021, that the new strain had been identified in a patient in California.

How do scientists know what versions of the coronavirus are present? How quickly can they see which viral variants are making inroads in a population?

Alexander Sundermann and Lee Harrison are epidemiologists who study novel approaches for outbreak detection. Here they explain how the genomic surveillance system works in the U.S. and why it’s important to know which virus variants are circulating.

What is genomic surveillance?

Genomic surveillance provides an early warning system for SARS-CoV-2. The same way a smoke alarm helps firefighters know where a fire is breaking out, genomic surveillance helps public health officials see which coronavirus variants are popping up where.

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