Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend

$1.7B strategy

U.S. will set up a network to counter variants.

- BY RICARDO ALONSOZALD­IVAR AND ZEKE MILLER

WASHINGTON — The U.S. is setting up a $1.7 billion national network to identify and track worrisome coronaviru­s mutations whose spread could trigger another pandemic wave, the Biden administra­tion announced 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 analyze 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 U.S. preparedne­ss for disease threats. The coronaviru­s is only one example.

Others 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 program 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 hardhit 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 socalled U.K. variant, but other mutations circulatin­g around the globe have shown resistance to currently available vaccines.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Friday the U.S. is now averaging nearly 70,000 new coronaviru­s cases daily, up from about 53,000 just four weeks ago. Hospitaliz­ations have been trending higher, too, and deaths were up for the third day in a row. Along with relaxed restrictio­ns on gatherings and indoor dining, the emergence of variants that spread more easily is part of the reason for the worsening trend.

Of particular concern are two variants that for now only have a toehold in the U.S. They are P1, first detected in travelers from Brazil, and B1351, identified in South Africa.

The reason scientists are watching those variants is that they have shown some level of resistance to antibodies, defensive proteins produced by the human body in response to vaccines or a previous infection.

Genomic sequencing essentiall­y involves mapping the DNA of an organism, the key to its unique features.

It’s done by high-tech machines that can cost from several hundred thousand dollars to $1 million or more. Technician­s trained to run the machines and the necessary computing capacity add to costs.

Another hurdle is getting local, state and federal labs all working together. “There are lots of cats that need to be herded,” said University of Wisconsin virologist Thomas Friedrich.

At the end of last year, the CDC and collaborat­ing labs were completing only 116 coronaviru­s gene sequences a week, according to the CDC’s website. “We started in a hole,” said Slavitt.

The White House says the weekly count is now about 29,000, but experts say in a large, diverse country like the U.S., those numbers need to be much higher to keep pace with potential changes to the virus. Viruses are highly efficient at spreading, developing mutations that enable them to keep reproducin­g.

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