A lab's whirlwind pace: COVID-19 testing and sequencing

Testing for viruses is a results-based endeavor. For researchers at the UW Medicine Virology Laboratory, the COVID-19 pandemic has commanded the equivalent of 50 years’ worth of results. That’s according to Dr. Alex Greninger, the laboratory’s assistant director, who says the unprecedented demand for COVID-19 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test results remains astronomically high – and the lab is delivering. 

“We’re still doing three-to-4,000 tests a day,” Greninger said. “That’s about a hundred times the amount of respiratory virus PCRs we would typically do, if you went back two years.” 

PCR testing is also used to detect other viruses, including the flu. On top of the demand for COVID-19 test results, UW Medicine is also sequencing variant strains with precision. That includes the steadily growing delta and gamma variants. 

As of June 17, UW Medicine researchers have detected nearly 1,000 total cases of the gamma (P.1) variant, accounting for 15% of all positive tests sequenced in the lab this week. The lab also has identified more than 230 total cases of the delta variant, which is present in 10% of this week's sequenced samples. Both variants are on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Variants of Concern" list. In total, the lab has sequenced more than 16,000 COVID-19 samples.

Greninger says COVID-19 vaccines are still standing up against the virus' evolution. 

"The most important thing you can do for yourself is to get vaccinated. Because the vaccines we have are just the best we've ever had. The response that it creates is so strong that it is able to handle and stop symptomatic disease, severe disease, transmission, any of these things. It's able to slow significantly slow or stop these new variants." 

UW Medicine