As variant strains of SARS-CoV-2 spread across the country and New York City, Barnard and Columbia are not always told if a test conducted on one of their campuses contains a variant strain, and students have no way of knowing if their positive tests are positive for the original strain or a variant.

While vaccinations provide a light at the end of the tunnel for the ongoing pandemic, variant cases pose a threat as New York City continues to reopen. Along with the variants first identified in the United Kingdom (called B.1.1.7) and South Africa (called B.1.351), New York City has its own homegrown variant (called B.1.526) that has been confirmed to be more infectious than the original strain, and its spread is outpacing that of B.1.1.7 in the city. 

Variant cases are detected by sequencing positive tests to determine the genetic makeup of the virus in the sample, which is then matched with known sequences to identify whether the sample is a variant strain. Mass sequencing, which is an integral part of a concept called “genomic surveillance,” can detect variant strains to determine how quickly they are spreading and whether they are more infectious or deadly than the original or “founder” strain. 

When asked if they are sequencing tests, a Barnard spokesperson said that “Barnard College does not perform genetic sequencing on the samples collected by our Primary Care Health Service (PCHS) or testing center. Samples collected at Barnard College and Columbia University are sent to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard for analysis… Samples analyzed by the Broad Institute will return a positive result if someone is infected with one of SARS-CoV-2 variant strains, but the results that Barnard receives do not identify strains.” 

A source at Columbia said that “the laboratory used by Columbia’s Testing Program does not currently sequence the positive COVID-19 samples collected through their college health testing programs,” but “they are in the process of developing a surveillance program, in collaboration with the CDC and state public health authorities. Once this capacity is in place, the lab will be able to sequence the viral genome from a cross-section of de-identified positive samples by state. This means that positive cases from Columbia may be sequenced. However, given de-identification of samples in order to protect patient privacy, the lab would only report these results to the applicable state, and we would not be notified of the variants that appear in our specific population.”

At both schools, this means that a student who tests positive for coronavirus may not have their test sequenced, and if they do, they will not be told whether they have been infected with a variant strain. Not informing patients that they have a variant strain is normal across the United States; according to PBS News, most people are not notified if their test is identified to contain a variant strain because the tests used have not yet been approved to diagnose patients by the FDA. It is also important to note that it’s practically impossible to sequence every test for logistical and financial reasons, and that surveillance is done by sequencing a portion of all tests conducted, not all tests. 

Columbia and Barnard being largely in the dark about which variants are on campus also means that variant cases cannot be reported in Barnard or Columbia’s dashboards. The source at Barnard did say that “to date, the only specific variant that the Broad Institute has named from Barnard samples is the B.1.351 COVID-19 variant, but this does not necessarily mean that others haven’t been detected since the lab has indicated that it is not able to inform schools if/when it detects variant strains.” 

According to NYC Health, as of March 23rd, there have been a total of 1800 cases of the local B.1526 variant, 590 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, and 2 cases of the B.1.351 variant reported in the city. 

Henry Astor contributed reporting to this article. 

This is a developing story. Bwog will update with any necessary information that may follow.

SARS-CoV-2 image via Flickr