White House tackles COVID-19 variants with $1.7 billion boost for genomic sequencing

WASHINGTON – The White House on Friday announced plans to help states detect and curb the spread of emerging COVID-19 variants by investing $1.7 billion in genomic sequencing, or the process to map the genetic code of a virus.

The funding, which comes from President Joe Biden’s nearly $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package, will be allocated through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help states and other jurisdictions monitor potentially more contagious COVID-19 strains, including the variants driving another surge in Michigan.

Though the U.S. continues to set new daily records for administering vaccines, variants like the B.1.1.7 are beginning to infect children, in what University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm has called a “brand new ball game.”

The money will be used toward collecting COVID-19 samples, sequencing of the virus and sharing subsequent data, according to a fact sheet provided by the White House.

“At this critical juncture in the pandemic, these new resources will help ensure states and the CDC have the support they need to fight back against dangerous variants and slow the spread of the virus,” White House COVID-19 Testing Coordinator Carole Johnson said in a statement.

Sequencing happens behind the scenes when someone gets tested for the coronavirus. If the test is positive, the sample may be sent to another lab for sequencing, especially if the person has had COVID-19 before or has been vaccinated. That provides the genetic code of a virus, laying out for scientists a precise map for how to defeat it.

Until recently, only a fraction of samples in the U.S. were sequenced, but the Biden administration invested $200 million on sequencing, quadrupling the rate of testing beginning in mid-February.

The investment also includes $400 million to establish six “Centers of Excellence in Genomic Epidemiology,” a partnership between state health departments and academic institutions for research and development, and $300 million to create a national bioinformatics system to share and analyze sequencing data. The administration will allocate the first portion of funding in early May, with a second tranche expected to be invested over the next several years.

This year, the United States ranks 33rd in the world for its rate of sequencing, falling between Burkina Faso and Zimbabwe, according to COVID CoV Genomic, led by researchers at Harvard and MIT. The top three nations – Iceland, Australia and New Zealand – sequenced at a rate 55 to 95 times greater.

Contributing: David Heath

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