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Testing and Variants

Many people are concerned about the new variants of COVID-19 emerging worldwide. Some patients are wondering what our current tests tell us about these new strains. Here are the two most common questions and their answers:

Will the test be positive if I have one of the SARS-CoV-2 variants?

  • Yes. The PCR tests being used by SVMC and other labs detect all of the COVID-19 strains in circulation.
  • The variants each have slight modifications, through genetic drift, to the ribonucleic acid (RNA) coding for outer protein(s).
  • The PCR test detects multiple segments of the RNA, usually around three, not the outer protein itself.
  • The RNA of the virus has not mutated to such a degree to evade detection by the PCR tests in use currently.
  • New variants are being monitored by the CDC and testing companies in the event that the tests need modification when a new variant is recognized.

Will the test tell me if I have a variant and which one? 

  • No. The PCR test used by SVMC and other labs does not differentiate between variants of the virus.
  • The state of Vermont is sending a sample of positive specimens out for genomic sequencing to differentiate variants. These include a sample of specimens from SVMC.
  • Testing of waste water in Burlington shows the presence of two COVID-19 virus mutations that are associated with the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom.

Have other questions? Ask at

Trey Dobson, MD, is the chief medical officer and an Emergency Medicine physician at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

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