Houston health officials use new techniques to detect COVID-19 variants

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The South African strain of coronavirus has been confirmed in the greater Houston area, and experts say it could spread quickly. ABC13 sat down with the city of Houston's health authority to see how the variant can impact COVID-19 testing and the vaccine.

Like many others, Houstonian Kevin Davidson says he's tired of hearing about all the new COVID-19 variants out there and how we're not in the clear yet when it comes to the pandemic.

Robert Atmar, a professor of infectious disease at Baylor College of Medicine, said viruses mutate, and now scientists are recognizing new variants as they test for them.

"It's not surprising that the virus is here," he said. "We're an international city, even though there hasn't been as much travel as of late as in the past, and it's one of those things that if you look for it, one would predict we are going to find it."

The Houston Health Department has been analyzing wastewater in different areas of the city to detect COVID-19 for the past year.

RELATED: COVID-19 vaccine effect on South African variant raises concerns
EMBED More News Videos

There are several highly contagious COVID-19 variants moving in the U.S., including the one that originated in the U.K., which is expected to become the dominant strain by the end of March. But here's why health experts say they're concerned about the South African variant.



Just last week, the UK variant was found in very low levels in multiple wastewater samples. The variant from South Africa has been found in Fort Bend County, but not in Harris County. The variant from Brazil hasn't been detected in our area at all.

Dr. David Persse said no one has ever done this before, and it's a new science they're still trying to unravel.

"So this really isn't a surprise. What we hope to do is be able to get a better idea as to how much it may be spreading throughout the community. Again, it won't be terribly specific, but it is pretty sensitive, so we will get an early warning," he said. "Although we may not be able to pinpoint anything, we will at least know what is probably about to happen."

He compared testing wastewater to a crystal ball that can show them what's about to happen.

SEE ALSO: Everything you need to know about South African COVID-19 variant

EMBED More News Videos

Press play to hear from the researchers on what they found.



"I think what people need to focus on is getting vaccinated and getting protected against all the strains that are out there right now." said Atmar.

That's something Davidson definitely has in mind. He doesn't qualify for the vaccine right now, but he's patiently waiting for his turn.

Follow Mayra Moreno on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Copyright © 2021 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.