US setting up $1.7B national network to track COVID-19 variants

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AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – DECEMBER 17: Medical testing equipment is shown in a lab at Auckland University on December 17, 2020 in Auckland, New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced today that the Government will purchase two new COVID-19 vaccines from pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Novavax, meaning every New Zealander will be able to be vaccinated. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — 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.

The investment, which will be part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, will improve detection, monitoring, and mitigation of these variants by scaling up genomic sequencing efforts – a key step in containing the spread, the White House said.

The investment will be broken down into three areas: $1 billion to expand genomic sequencing, $400 million to help build six research centers for genomic epidemiology and $300 million to build a national bioinformatics infrastructure – which will help build a repository of data.

The first portion of the funding will be distributed in early May and the next round will be invested over the coming several years, the White House said. The White House also offered a state-by-state breakdown of the funds with California receiving over $17 million, Texas over $15 million and Florida over $12 million.

“The original strain of COVID-19 comprises only about half of all cases in America today. New and potentially dangerous strains of the virus make up the other half,” the White House said in a statement.

Nearly 31.5 million Americans have been infected with the virus with more than 565,000 dead, according to data complied by Johns Hopkins University.

The new effort, which relies on money approved by Congress as part of Biden’s coronavirus relief package, aims to break what experts say is a feast-or-famine cycle in U.S. preparedness for biological threats, of which the coronavirus is only one example.

Others 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 hard-hit Michigan, the more transmissible mutation accounts for more than half the cases, according to CDC data. Vaccines are effective against the so-called U.K. variant, but other mutations circulating around the globe have shown resistance to currently available vaccines.

“In order for us to even have the possibility of getting back to normal by the fall we need to massively scale up our genomic surveillance,” said Esther Krofah, who directs the Faster Cures initiative of the Milken Institute. “It’s the insurance program that you need to have in place not just now, not just for COVID, but going forward for other pathogens of concern.”

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 computing capacity to support the whole process add to costs. Another hurdle is getting local, state and federal labs all working together.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and collaborating labs were completing only 116 coronavirus gene sequences a week at the end of last year, according to the CDC’s website. 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.

A White House official said on Thursday the United States is preparing for the possibility that a booster shot will be needed between nine to 12 months after people are initially vaccinated against COVID-19.

This comes just days after Food and Drug Administration and the CDC recommended pausing the use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine for at least a few days to investigate reports of rare but potentially dangerous blood clots, a blow to fighting the pandemic.

The one-shot J&J was considered an important addition in bringing the vaccine into harder-to-reach populations since it does not require cold storage or a second appointment. More than 6.8 million doses of J&J have been administered, according to the FDA.

A CDC advisory committee did not make a decision related to the pause in the use of Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose COVID-19 vaccine. The panel said it would look for more information on the rare but potentially dangerous blood clot cases before voting on whether to continue to recommend pausing the use of the vaccine. 

The blood clot cases in question, all in women under age 50, were reported out of 6.8 million doses of the J&J vaccine administered in the United States – a risk federal health officials and immunology experts said was extremely low, especially when weighed against the potential risk of COVID-19. One of the six women died and three remain hospitalized.

About 78.5 million people, or 23.6% of the U.S. population, have been fully inoculated with COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer Inc/ BioNTech SE, Moderna Inc and Johnson & Johnson, according to CDC data. 37.9% of the U.S. population or 125.8 million adults had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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