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The Omicron variant is putting America’s coronavirus sequencing efforts to the test

Rows of scientists sit before racks of coronavirus samples inside a laboratory in Henderson, North Carolina, wearing face masks and scrubs. All hours of the day and night, they transfer the samples from tubes to processing plates, searching for answers about the virus behind these Covid-19 cases.

From confirming a positive Covid-19 sample to prepping the DNA and then sequencing it, the process takes two to three days in the lab, said Lauren Moon, sequencing manager for MAKO Medical’s Next Generation Sequencing Lab in North Carolina. Work like this is happening in labs around the United States as the country races to learn more about the newly identified Omicron variant.

“Knowledge is power in this, and the more that we know about something the more equipped we are to fight it. The more effective our vaccines are going to be and the more informed the public is, they can take appropriate safety measures,” Moon told CNN’s Dianne Gallagher. “We want to sequence as much as possible,” Moon said. This lab has not yet detected Omicron variant positive tests, but cases are starting to emerge in several states.

These discoveries are no surprise. They’re the moments genetic detectives have been preparing for — and the reason the US has been ramping up its sequencing abilities. As the coronavirus pandemic unfolded, other countries were able to identify changes to the virus sooner and take action quicker. Early this year, Biden administration officials acknowledged the country was “not where we want to be” on genetic sequencing of coronavirus variants, and then made major investments to improve it. After South African scientists announced last week they had detected a previously unknown coronavirus variant, US officials acknowledged it was likely here already. They just had to sequence enough coronavirus samples to find it.