Technicians at UNH's COVID laboratory in Durham

Technicians at UNH’s COVID laboratory in Durham use automated processes for the testing of large numbers of saliva and nasal swab samples for COVID-19 surveillance statewide. The lab also runs DNA sequencing on all positive samples in order to identify coronavirus variants in order to help researchers develop therapies for treatment.

DURHAM — Kelly Thomas is at the forefront when it comes to studying and tracking the virus that causes COVID-19.

The professor of molecular, cellular and biomedical sciences, and director of the Hubbard Center for Genome Studies at the University of New Hampshire is tracking how the coronavirus behaves, and its offshoots like the delta and omicron variant.

“The thing that is completely amazing is watching it change,” Thomas said during an interview Friday.

His lab in Durham, which was set up during the summer of 2020 when COVID was raging, has now completed over a million tests to detect and monitor the coronavirus, according to the university.

Operating two shifts, six days of the week, the lab performs specially designed self-swab tests for UNH students, faculty and staff, but has extended its impact and reach beyond the campus.

The lab processes coronavirus tests for more than 125 other groups, including secondary schools, long-term care facilities, and other colleges in the state, according to the university.

The data help inform the state’s COVID-19 dashboard — the primary scorecard of what’s happening with the pandemic statewide.

And speed matters, according to Thomas.

“We have a great reputation for turning the tests around very quickly, and that is very important,” said Thomas.

“The tests themselves don’t matter unless there is some action taken. For example, isolating people that are positive really quickly before they have contact, so you can control the spread.”

The omicron variant is highly transmissible and appears responsible for the large number of positive tests now being processed in labs in New Hampshire and across the county, Thomas said. If there’s any good news, it is that omicron appears to cause less serious illness especially among vaccinated and boosted people.

During the first year of the pandemic, 10 different versions of the virus were just “hanging out,” Thomas said. All the while the original virus, SARS-coV-2, went about its lethal path causing serious respiratory ailments and death, especially among older people worldwide.

“Then one that is better at being transmitted comes along, and suddenly that’s all you have,” he said, referring to the delta and omicron variants, the strains that caused the recent spike in positive tests and hospitalizations.

It’s an evolutionary principle that these viruses change, Thomas says.

Since scientists know the genome sequence of the virus, they also can identify the parts of it that are conserved and don’t change much over time. The professor says they just look for those sequences in saliva or nasal swab samples. It’s not unlike what is used in forensics to catch a criminal where a postage stamp lick can amplify a suspect’s DNA.

Thomas says the tests in the UNH lab are very sensitive. “One of the unique properties of the PCR test is that they can detect very low levels of the virus,” he says.

When the lab was set up, the hope was to control the spread of COVID-19 on campus. Having met that challenge, Thomas says they started using their automated testing capacity for long-term care centers like nursing homes and other entities like high schools.

“In order to be able to tell people the same day they submit the test that ‘this person needs to be isolated for a while’ — that is the most important,” he said.

Thomas says the PCR test is rapid, but the genomic sequencing of positive samples takes much longer, sometimes weeks. Those more extensive tests are funded by the National Institutes of Health, and will ultimately help the understanding of what causes some people to get severely sick with COVID while others escape.

The journal “Nature Reviews Microbiology” recently published a paper by several researchers who underscored the need for the DNA sequencing step.

“The development of effective intervention strategies relies on the knowledge of molecular and cellular mechanisms of coronavirus infections, which highlights the significance of studying virus-host interactions at the molecular level to identify targets for antiviral intervention,” the authors wrote.

Marian McCord, UNH’s senior vice provost for research, economic engagement and outreach, sees the lab as an integral part of the state’s COVID-19 surveillance as well as a national leader in COVID genomics.

“It’s a testament to the extensive expertise at UNH and the dedication that has played a vital part in helping keep the community safe,” she said.