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The COVID-19 variant does not appear to pose a threat to Southern Nevada

Dr. Edwin Oh (UNLV)

Wastewater is an early warning system for COVID and other diseases, and a joint effort in Nevada appears to be the first in the country to discover a new strain of the disease – known as FLiRT.

“We discovered it as early as March 29,” said UNLV professor Dr. Edwin Oh, director of the UNLV laboratory that monitors wastewater in southern and northern Nevada, adding that his check of several websites of laboratories across the country that do such wastewater monitoring indicates that UNLV was the first to detect the new variant found.

The goal of the wastewater monitoring and research is to determine whether a new strain of the ever-evolving disease — which once killed 25,000 Americans a week at its peak in 2020 — could pose a problem to humans.

“So far it doesn’t seem like (FLiRT) is a major threat,” Oh said of the two variants – KP.1 and KP.2. – these are mutations of FLiRT.

“We’re doing a lot of research on the different pathogens and variants,” Oh said of his team, which includes UNLV students and wastewater treatment plant operators. About 15 different locations are monitored weekly in Clark County and three or four locations in Northern Nevada.

The effort aims to warn and protect the community against COVID variants that could increase the risk of severe illness.

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

The wastewater has been monitored for years. The most recent variant to raise eyebrows was JN.1 around Christmas, Oh said. “It had about 50 mutations and many of us were concerned that it could pose additional 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 [email protected].