Under COVID-19 relief legislation pending in Congress, U.S. researchers will acquire greatly improved capabilities to detect potentially deadlier coronavirus mutations.
The U.S. now maps only the genetic makeup of a tiny fraction of positive samples of viruses, a scenario that some scientists equate to flying blind. This implies that the real domestic distribution of problem mutations first found in the United Kingdom and South Africa remains a matter of guesswork.
Such ignorance could prove expensive. One problem is that more transmissible types will travel faster than the ability of the nation to bring the vaccine into the arms of Americans, such as the UK version.
David O’Connor, an AIDS researcher at the University of Wisconsin, said, “You have a small number of academic and public health labs that have essentially been doing genomic surveillance.” “But the strategy does not have any national coherence.”
The Disease Control and Prevention Centers are trying to shepherd those activities, aligning them with the advanced detection work of the government itself, but the COVID-19 law will take the search to another level.
A bill cleared by the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week for floor debate will include $1.75 billion for genomic sequencing. It calls for the CDC to organise a national network to use the technology to track mutation spread and direct countermeasures for public health.
Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, has proposed bills in the Senate that would include $2 billion. Baldwin says that gene-mapping technology can be used by the U.S. to evaluate at least 15% of positive virus samples. That may not sound like much, but 0.3 percent to 0.5 percent is assumed to be the current average. Analyzing 15% of positive samples will increase surveillance by a minimum of 30 times.
“Variants pose a growing threat,” Baldwin said. “Increasing our testing capacity was essential to our ability to track and slow the spread of the virus at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The same is true for finding and tracking these variants.”
In essence, genomic sequencing requires the mapping of an organism’s DNA, the secret to its specific features. High-tech devices that can range from a few hundred thousand dollars to $1 million or more can do that. In order to help the whole operation, technicians qualified to operate the machines and processing power add to costs.
The changes in the virus allowed it to spread more easily and are also thought to cause deadlier COVID-19 disease in the case of the UK variant first identified in England. The Institute for Health Metrics and Assessment in Seattle reports that in at least 10 U.S. states, transmission of the UK variant has been reported. On Tuesday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told governors that by the end of March, it could become dominant.
Sequencing 0.3% to 0.5% of virus samples, as the U.S. is now doing, “just doesn’t give us the ability to detect strains as they grow and become dominant,” said Dr. Phil Febbo, chief medical officer for Illumina, a genomic sequencing technology development company based in San Diego.
The Biden administration, he said, must “set a very clear goal.” What is the hill we’re going to bill you for? ”
“The data is required. Otherwise, in some respects, we’re flying blind,’ said Esther Krofah, who heads the Milken Institute FasterCures initiative. “We don’t understand the prevalence of mutations that we in the United States should worry about.”
A strain first observed in South Africa that scientists believe may be at least partially immune to some of the coronavirus vaccines is even more worrying than the UK variant. In a small number of instances, the variant has also been found in the U.S.
Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus coordinator, has called “totally unacceptable” U.S. monitoring of virus mutations, saying the nation ranks 43rd in the world. But the administration of Biden has not set a goal for what degree of virus gene mapping the nation should aim for.
AIDS scientist O’Connor at the University of Wisconsin said he and his colleagues began “because that’s where we live,” sequencing coronavirus samples from the Madison area.
His colleague, Thomas Friedrich, a specialist in virology, said a national initiative would require more than money to buy new genomic sequencing machines. To completely share the information they obtain from testing virus samples, the CDC would have to set guidelines for state health officials and academic research institutions. There is a hodgepodge of state laws and procedures at present, and some of them limit access to key information.
“We have to look at this as a Manhattan project or an Apollo programme,” Friedrich said, recalling the research efforts led by the government that created the atomic bomb and landed men on the moon.
The United Kingdom was able to determine its variant because there is an organised gene mapping programme in the national health system that aims to sequence around 10% of samples, he said. Since that happened, genetic sequencing on this side of the Atlantic Ocean has become more urgent.
Friedrich said, “The utility of doing this may not have been as apparent to as many people until these variants began to pop up.”