US setting up $1.7B national network to track virus variants 

WION Web Team
Washington  Published: Apr 17, 2021, 12:00 PM(IST)

A representative image of coronavirus in US. Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

The new effort relies on money approved by Congress as part of President Joe Biden's coronavirus relief package to break what experts say is a feast-or-famine cycle in US preparedness for disease threats

The US is setting up a USD 1.7 billion national network to identify and track worrisome coronavirus mutations whose spread could trigger another pandemic wave, the Biden administration announced on Friday. 

White House officials unveiled a strategy that features three components: a major funding boost for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments to ramp up coronavirus gene-mapping; the creation of six 'centers of excellence' partnerships with universities to conduct research and develop technologies for gene-based surveillance of pathogens, and building a data system to better share and analyse information on emerging disease threats, so knowledge can be turned into action. 

"Even as we accelerate our efforts to get shots into arms, more dangerous variants are growing, causing increases in cases in people without immunity," White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt told reporters. That 'requires us to intensify our efforts to quickly test for and find the genetic sequence of the virus as it spreads.' 

The new effort relies on money approved by Congress as part of President Joe Biden's coronavirus relief package to break what experts say is a feast-or-famine cycle in US preparedness for disease threats. The coronavirus is only one example. Other pathogens have included Ebola and Zika, and respiratory viruses like SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012, which did not become major problems in the United States. 

Typically, the government scrambles to counter a potential threat, but funding dries up when it recedes. The new genomic surveillance initiative aims to create a permanent infrastructure. 

“It's a transformative amount of money," Mary Lee Watts, federal affairs director at the American Society for Microbiology, said in a recent interview. 'It has the potential not only to get ahead of the current crisis, but it is going to help us in the future. This is a programme that has been underfunded for years.' 

The Biden administration's move comes as a variant known as B117, which first emerged in the United Kingdom, has become the predominant strain in the U.S. In hard-hit Michigan, the more transmissible mutation accounts for more than half the cases, according to CDC data. That's also the case in Minnesota. Vaccines are effective against the so-called U.K. Variant, but other mutations circulating around the globe have shown resistance to currently available vaccines. 

(With inputs from agencies) 

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