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How New York City Is Testing For New Covid Variants - Catharine Smith

CAT SMITH, HOST: B ONE FIVE TWO SIX. That’s the new strain of COVID 19 that is sweeping through New York City. It’s a mutation that helps the coronavirus evade the body’s natural immune responses. It's been detected in diverse neighborhoods throughout the city, and parts of the Northeast. Meanwhile, the number of people in New York testing positive for the UK strain of the virus is rising. And the South Africa variant has been found in two people in Nassau County, which borders Queens. Health authorities are struggling to keep on top of these mutations, not least because testing for them isn’t as simple as swabbing someone’s nose and running a quick test -- the virus’ genome has to be sequenced to figure out what type it is. That’s a time-consuming, expensive business that has added a layer of complication to an already tricky process.

Joining us now to discuss the city’s efforts to test for the new COVID strains is Dr. Nischay Mishra, a virologist at Columbia University. Dr. Mishra, thanks for joining us today.

NISCHAY MISHRA: Thank you for inviting.

SMITH: Is New York City doing enough to test for these new strains of COVID?

MISHRA: The effort has started a couple of months ago, and it’s ramping up every day.

SMITH: How many people are getting the genome sequenced?

MISHRA: Ten to 15%. But that is randomly taken, because not all the samples coming across are appropriate for sequencing.

SMITH: If only 10% to 15 are having the genome sequenced, is that enough to trace these new variants as they start to spread?

MISHRA: It can be increased, of course.

SMITH: You’re saying we could be doing more?

MISHRA: Yeah, we could be doing always more. But that’s a very cumbersome process. It needs a lot of expertise.

SMITH: Is it safe to be opening nursing homes and movie theaters and sports arenas right now? I mean, the UK variant caused a new lockdown in London and the rest of the UK back in January -- that same strain is spreading in New York right now. Is it safe for us to open back up?

MISHRA: We should have, like, limited crowds in these places. And taking all the precautions. Like wearing the mask, or, like, we need to -- the same phenomenon goes. Doesn’t matter which variant, which strain, which virus is there. We have to follow the same rules. Wearing the mask, trying to distance people, small gatherings, those things.

SMITH: I see. So, it doesn’t matter -- more infectious strain, or the strains we had last spring, we should still be taking precautions.

MISHRA: Yeah, precautions are the same. They’re not gonna change.

SMITH: And there’s concern that SOME of these new variants might be a problem for the vaccines. What do you want people to understand about that?

MISHRA: So, like, vaccine was being developed when the virus was evolving. So both things happening in the parallel. And the new variants come in, the scientific community, and the manufacturer, they also know about it, they also sequence, they get all the data, and they will modify the vaccine accordingly. So at this moment, when we have the vaccine that is very efficacious, and so far we did not lose a lot of efficacy in any of the vaccine with the new variant, except one or two cases. So we should be fine. But I’m sure very soon we should have multiple vaccines that are subjected to different variants.

SMITH: What do you think the media is getting wrong about these new variants?

MISHRA: We are not focusing on the defense mechanism. Media should be just talking about, “Ok, doesn’t matter which variant is circulating around you. We need to take the same precautions. We need to try avoid getting infected. And if we are sick, we shouldn’t come in contact with anyone. And go and get tested as soon as possible.

SMITH: Is there anything else I should know about that we haven’t touched on yet?

MISHRA: Yeah, this is natural for virus to evolve and make a new progeny which are different. This is a very common feature, it’s not something we need to be afraid about. But we need to take precautions -- the same precautions we have been taking. And go get vaccinated.

SMITH: Dr. Nischay Mishra, Columbia virologist, thank you for being with us today.

MISHRA: Thank you very much.


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