Morning Sun

Flying blind no way to survive pandemic — we need a powerful radar


The omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus emerged around Thanksgivi­ng. The first confirmed case in the United States was recorded Dec. 1, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the prevalence for the week ending Dec. 18 had soared to 73% - an astounding and alarming leap, virtually displacing the delta variant. Now, the CDC has revised that week’s estimate down to 22.5%, a correction that underscore­s how the United States is flying blind in the pandemic storm.

Undoubtedl­y, omicron will continue to rise, but the initial, overly high estimate is a symptom of a serious, systemic gap in public health informatio­n. We have the technology to chart the whole genome of a viral sample. But the United States has not yet built a real-time system of viral genomic surveillan­ce that would allow comprehens­ive tracking of variants as they move through the population. As it is now, the CDC pulls together genomic surveillan­ce data from a variety of sources, including its own facilities, state public health labs, and university and private laboratori­es, but only a fraction of all pandemic samples are sequenced, and it can take weeks to build a reliable picture of how the variant is spreading. The CDC’S weekly prevalence estimates can also include projection­s from modeling, at least until hard data arrives. The most recent CDC estimate for omicron prevalence during the week ending Dec. 25 was 58.6% in the United States.

As Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefelle­r Foundation, warned in a report, “One secret weapon has helped beat every disease outbreak over the last century; but it is not masks or social distancing, lockdowns, or even vaccines. Instead it is data . . . . Data is what moves us from a panic-driven response to a science-driven one.” The pandemic caught the United States and much of the world flat-footed, without that data, although some countries, such as

Britain, have made it a priority.

We need to know what variants are spreading where, in order to make critical decisions about in-person learning in schools or to distribute therapies aimed at specific variants, such as monoclonal antibodies. At-home diagnostic rapid tests are a growing plus, but if there is no collecting the data into a real-time surveillan­ce system, the picture is incomplete. A simple smartphone app might help harvest this data; the technology would also have obvious benefits for flu, strep throat and other illnesses.

We have the National Oceanic and Atmospheri­c Administra­tion

and its National Weather Service to warn of tornadoes and other weather dangers. The U.S. Forest Service has the National Avalanche Center to warn skiers and others. The U.S. military maintains early warning radars to spot ballistic missile threats. Now it is time to give viral genomic surveillan­ce the same heft and priority. The Biden administra­tion announced funding this year from the American Rescue Plan to help the CDC and states ramp up such surveillan­ce, and states have been sequencing far more samples than in the past. But we cannot be satisfied until the nation has a radar that provides real-time, precise informatio­n about the microbial threats we face.

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