North Chicago's Abbott Labs, COVID test maker, is leading the way on omicron

NORTH CHICAGO, Ill. (WLS) -- After Dr. Mary Rodgers heard from key researchers about a new COVID variant over Thanksgiving, scientists at North Chicago's Abbott Labs immediately jumped into action.

"After the dessert, I was talking to our partner in South Africa and I asked, how big of a problem do you think this is going to be?" she recalled. "And he told me he was really concerned about it. I take his word very seriously."

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So on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Dr. Rodgers and her team went to work studying what would come to be named the omicron variant's sequence.

Omicron has 30,000 nucleotides, a sequence of 30,000 letters on a computer. The dots on Rodgers' screen mean omicron is the same as the original strain, but each line of letters shows where it changed.

"It's the select few positions that are changing that are wreaking havoc, potentially, and we need to keep our eye on," she explained.

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Abbott Labs, headquartered in North Chicago, is the leading manufacturer of COVID tests in the country. Rodgers and her team wanted to know those tests, like the at-home Binax Now, could detect omicron. By Friday night, they had the results they were hoping for.

"Every region of our test was looking OK," Rodgers said. "That, at the end of the day, is when I could take a breath of fresh air, a sigh of relief, and be able to send out the report."

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Since long before COVID, Abbott scientists have been tracking pathogens and viruses, continually sequencing various genes. And the sequencing lab isn't just about the current pandemic, but also what comes next: the next virus, the next pandemic. They're looking for it.

"It gives me hope to know that we have more tools available than we have ever had before," said Rodgers. "We have teams working around the clock, doing their best to protect people, and that gives me comfort knowing that there is something we can do about this virus."
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