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'We have been on high alert'| UC San Diego scientists test sewage of COVID cases for Omicron variant

Researchers at UC San Diego have been on the lookout for the Omicron variant in SD County and are testing the wastewater of people with COVID-19 with a new process.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — At UC San Diego Medical Center, researchers have already gotten a head start in working to identify the Omicron variant. 

They are taking samples from the positive COVID-19 cases on campus and in hospital wastewater and clinical tests.

"We feel really confident that if Omicron enters our population, we will be able to identify it,” said Dr. David Pride, UCSD Associate Director of microbiology.

Samples from sewage at UC San Diego are run through high-tech machines, before scientists bring the wastewater sample inside the lab for further testing.

"Therefore we know which variants are going into and potentially leaving our population,” said Dr. Pride.

Dr. Pride says since March 2020, researchers on campus have been processing sewage using a robotic platform. They've identified the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants and are on the lookout for the latest Omicron.

"We have been on high alert for about the past week maybe a little bit longer about the Omicron variant,” Dr. Pride said.

Dr. Pride says some COVID mutations of the Omicron variant appear to be identical to mutations researchers saw in the Alpha variant. 

Through UCSD's automated system, it can process 24 samples every 40 minutes.

“We put it through, what is a very involved process, where we will take the RNA from the virus, turn it into DNA and then put it on a sequencer and then analyze all those results,” said Dr. Pride.

From testing to data sequencing, Dr. Pride says researchers expect to know within days and less than a week if the Omicron variant is present in San Diego.

"The second we get an inkling that someone might have the Omicron variant, we will move it through the pipeline as fast as possible to try to confirm that diagnosis,” said Dr. Pride.

WATCH RELATED: 'It is not a cause for panic' | First U.S. case of omicron variant identified in California (December 2021)

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