The White House on Friday announced an almost $2 billion plan for expanding and improving the nation’s ability to track coronavirus variants, an effort that public health experts have said is desperately needed to fight against variants that could drive another wave or potentially undermine the effectiveness of vaccines.
More than half of the funding, $1 billion, would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and states to monitor those variants by examining positive virus test samples. The tracking relies on genome sequencing, in which researchers read every genetic letter in a coronavirus’s genome to find out whether the virus belongs to a known lineage or is an entirely new variant with new mutations.
That money will be steered to the collection of samples and sequencing, then sharing the data with health officials and scientists, the White House said. The C.D.C. has so far leaned heavily on commercial laboratories to conduct that work.
The investment is the most significant effort by the federal government yet to speed up its ability to locate variants, which account for over half of the nation’s coronavirus infections and could, officials fear, prolong the pandemic in many parts of the country. One variant, a more contagious and more lethal variant known as B.1.1.7 and first identified in Britain, has become the dominant version in the United States, contributing to a surge in Michigan, the worst in the nation.
While new U.S. cases, hospitalizations and new deaths have declined from their peaks in January, new cases have begun increasing again after a weekslong plateau, reaching an average of more than 70,000 a day as of Thursday, according to a New York Times database.
“State and local public health departments are on the front lines of beating back the pandemic, but they need more capacity to detect these variants early on before dangerous outbreaks,” Andy Slavitt, a White House pandemic adviser, said at a news conference on Friday.
Carole Johnson, the Biden administration’s testing coordinator, said in an interview on Friday that the money, part of the recently passed American Rescue Plan, would arrive at the C.D.C. “quickly” and get to states by early May.
“We’re hoping that that gives a quick jolt to our response efforts,” she said.
The rest of the funding will go to two programs that appear to be aimed at organizing a more permanent architecture for sequencing samples. Four hundred million dollars will go to what the White House described as partnerships between state health departments and academic institutions. They could help develop new surveillance methods for tracking viruses.
And $300 million will go to creating a unified system that will allow scientists to store, share, and make sense of the vast amounts of new data. The goal is to quickly detect the spread of variants and enable prompt decisions about stopping them.
“This is about both doing the near term work of supporting sequencing but also really building out that infrastructure,” Ms. Johnson said.
In February, the Biden administration put forward $200 million as a “down payment” on a more robust surveillance program, with the goal of sequencing 29,000 samples weekly. Officials described it as an early step in building out the federal government’s capacity to sequence more samples.
Earlier this month, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C. director, said that the B.1.1.7 variant, which is currently estimated to be about 60 percent more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original version, had become the most common source of new infections in the United States. The C.D.C. has also been tracking the spread of other variants, such as B.1.351, first found in South Africa, and P.1, which was first identified in Brazil.
Ms. Johnson said that the funding would help health officials across the country respond to outbreaks in a more sophisticated way, including by surging testing in certain areas or considering new mitigation strategies.
When B.1.1.7 was first detected in the United States at the end of December, experts warned that the country was poorly prepared to track coronavirus variants, lacking a national plan for collecting samples and analyzing their mutations to determine the variants’ spread.
In January, the United States was sequencing samples from less than 1 percent of positive coronavirus tests. Researchers said that simply wasn’t enough information to know how common variants really were and how quickly they were spreading. By contrast, Britain, the world’s leader in genomic surveillance, was sequencing up to 10 percent of new positive tests.
Over the past three months, the C.D.C. has charted a steady rise in the number of coronavirus genomes sequenced weekly in the United States, recording a new high of 14,837 for the week ending April 10. The number represented about 3 percent of the country’s positive tests that week.
Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/04/16/world/covid-vaccine-coronavirus-cases/