How university screening programs revealed Omicron’s spread

June 16, 2022 – Screening programs at Boston-area universities helped show how quickly the Omicron variant of the coronavirus overtook the Delta variant in the fall of 2021, according to a new study.

Using a fast new technique to identify variants, researchers found that Omicron, first reported by researchers in South Africa on November 24, 2021, was already spreading in the U.S. within days, and that it accounted for over 90% of SARS-CoV-2 infections as early as nine days after arriving in a community.

In the study, led by researchers at Harvard Medical School and including experts from Boston University, Harvard, and Northeastern University, scientists used samples from the universities’ asymptomatic screening programs and analyzed them with a technique combining PCR gene amplification and CRISPR gene editing technologies, which enabled the researchers to quickly identify specific genetic mutations that differentiate Omicron from Delta.

Bill Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was a co-author of the study. In a June 8 Harvard Medical School article, he said, “Omicron’s rise to global dominance was extremely rapid, and so was its emergence here in Boston. It moved so fast that we’d have missed a lot of cases if it weren’t for these screening programs run by colleges, but with them we were able to document the takeover.” He added, “Studying these things is really important to understand how transmissible new variants are, and how much of that is down to an ability to sidestep immunity that might mean we need to update vaccines.”

Read the Harvard Medical School article: A Bellwether for COVID-19