Purdue scientists unraveling mystery behind UK COVID-19 variant

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – The COVID-19 United Kingdom variant has scientists scratching their heads despite landing on U.S. soil months ago.

The strain is particularly concerning because research shows it spreads from 35-45% faster than other mutations.

But, scientists at the Purdue University School of Pharmacy are determined to crack what makes this variant so different from others. School dean, Eric Barker, says eight U.K. researchers discovered the mutation goes undetected and cannot be confirmed with a standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) coronavirus test.

“One of the genetic markers actually disappears from the diagnostic test,” he said. “It’s called an ‘S’ gene dropout. They began to identify this in very early January and then allowed us to do whole genome virus sequencing to look at what variants we truly were seeing.”

Genome virus sequencing is a complex process. It requires lab coats, goggles, test tubes and, of course, samples from COVID-19 infected patients.

Barker said, “The swab goes into a test tube and those then get taken to the lab and those become our feeder samples. So, we would draw nucleic acid from those and we then have large pieces of equipment that are automated sequencers dissect that genetic code.”

This process, the professor says, then tells researchers what makes up the U.K. variant piece by piece. This method is essential, he says, because to fix a problem, you first must understand it.

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over six years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets. You can follow her on Facebook @DrMaryGillis and Instagram @reportergillis.