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Penn Medicine researchers working to detect new COVID variant in Philadelphia region

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) — The first case of the omicron COVID-19 variant has been detected in the United States.

While miles away in California, word of this latest strain of the virus has spread in the Philadelphia area.

“Yeah, it’s scary. It is very scary,” said resident Shekinah Vann.

While no cases of omicron have been reported in Pennsylvania, some feel it’s just a matter of time before the first cases appear in the Northeast.

“I think it’s going to come because people are still traveling. It’s unavoidable,” said West Philadelphia resident April Wimbush.

SEE ALSO: U.S. records first omicron case as local, national officials urge COVID-19 vaccinations

When and if the seemingly contagious variant arrives in the greater Philadelphia region, one of the first places that will likely get wind of it will be the University of Pennsylvania.

“It could be well here already. We’re actively sequencing, trying to scan for catches of omicron and it’s just a matter of time, I think,” said Doctor Frederic Bushman, chair of microbiology at the University’s Perelman School and Medicine and is co-director of the Penn Center for Research on Coronavirus and Other Emerging Pathogens.

The work is tedious, involving sequencing the virus’s genetic material, some 30,000 RNA bases.

“All of our data is flowing into a central global repository so lots of people can analyze it and try to understand how the virus is evolving and changing,” said Bushman.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health is also utilizing that database.

“We also have the ability to send samples to the CDC for sequencing, but generally speaking, it’s faster to get it done locally,” said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole.

On Wednesday, Bettigole announced her commitment to getting the city to start its own lab.

“This feels like a very important capability for us going forward,” she said.

Meanwhile, health officials around the region remain on alert and ask the public to rely on the science.

This remains a disease and a pandemic of the unvaccinated, we certainly see that here in southeastern Pennsylvania,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Doctor Val Arkoosh.

Delta remains the dominant variant in this region.

One thing health officials are noticing about the new variant is its ability to better bind to human cells and dodge the body’s antibody response.

Researchers are hoping to understand the variant’s full impact on the vaccinated and unvaccinated soon.

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