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New COVID strain detected in Nevada not a major threat, officials say

Updated May 14, 2024 - 7:14 pm

Wastewater is an early warning system for COVID and other diseases, and a collaborative effort in Nevada appears to be the first in the nation to detect a new strain of the disease — known as FLiRT.

“We detected it as early as March 29,” said UNLV Professor Dr. Edwin Oh, director of the UNLV lab that monitors wastewater in southern and northern Nevada, adding that his check of various websites from labs across the country that do such wastewater monitoring, indicates UNLV was first in finding the new variant.

The goal of the wastewater surveillance and research is to determine if any new strain of the constantly evolving disease — that once killed 25,000 Americans a week at its height in 2020 — might pose a problem for humans.

“So far it does not look like it (FLiRT) poses any major threats,” Oh said of the the two variants — KP.1 and KP.2. — that are mutations of FLiRT.

“We nerd out a lot on the different pathogens and variants,” Oh said of his crew that includes UNLV undergrads and wastewater treatment plant operators. About 15 different sites are checked weekly in Clark County and three or four sites in Northern Nevada.

The effort is to warn and protect the community from COVID variants that could raise the risk of major sickness potential.

Genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19 can be found in human waste even when individuals have no symptoms. Tracking the amount of viral genetic material (viral load) in wastewater is an emerging method of monitoring increasing and decreasing trends of the virus in communities.

Wastewater surveillance has been ongoing for years. The most recent variant that raised eyebrows was JN.1 around Christmas time, Oh said. “It had about 50 mutations and a lot of us were concerned that it might bring added risk to the immunocompromised (population) or the vaccine resistant (population).”

The wastewater monitoring project is a collaboration between Southern Nevada Health District, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Desert Research Institute and UNLV.

Contact Marvin Clemons at mclemons@reviewjournal.com.

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