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Scientists identify COVID variants through sequencing, not symptoms

December 20, 2021 GMT

CLAIM: The illness that scientists are labeling the omicron variant of COVID-19 may actually just be the common cold or the respiratory syncytial virus, both of which appear more often in the winter months.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Scientists detected the omicron variant by sequencing the genetic material of virus samples, not by noticing cold-like symptoms. And while it’s true that colds and RSV are more prevalent in winter, COVID-19 tests are designed to discern that someone has the coronavirus as opposed to just a common cold.

THE FACTS: As a new, highly contagious variant of the coronavirus swept across the globe this month, some social media users falsely claimed the omicron variant was nothing but a misdiagnosis of the common cold or RSV, another cause of cold-like symptoms.

People catch colds more often during the winter months,” one widely viewed Facebook post speculated. “Maybe they’re just calling the common cold or an RSV infection the Omicron variant.”

But no one is just putting a new scientific name on a cold. Scientists have identified the omicron variant through precise genetic sequencing, not just through identifying cold-like symptoms. By sequencing the genome of the coronavirus in a respiratory sample from someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, scientists can pinpoint the ways in which the virus has mutated. That’s how they know when a new coronavirus variant is spreading in the population, as opposed to a previous strain.

“Every bacteria and virus has specific genetic markers,” said Dr. Anita Gupta, a professor and anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Scientists, she added, look for those genetic markers when they sequence the viral genome, “and that’s how they’re able to identify which type of variant they have.”

The post also ignores that COVID-19 diagnostic tests do more than just confirm you are sick: They are designed specifically to identify the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Whether you use a PCR test, which looks for genetic material from the virus, or a rapid test, which looks for proteins on the surface of the virus, a COVID-19 test identifies that the virus that causes COVID-19 was found inside your body. COVID-19 tests are designed to register as positive only in the presence of SARS-CoV-2, not other viruses, Gupta explained.

While scientists have been able to identify that the omicron variant has appeared in different parts of the world, much about the variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness. Scientists say omicron spreads even easier than other coronavirus strains, including delta, and it is expected to become dominant in the U.S. by early next year.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.