Time June 21/June 28, 2021 pp70-75|SCIENCE|A NEW HOPE FOR HEALTH CARE|”THE SEQUENCING SOLUTION” “GENETIC SURVEILLANCE IS THE KEY TO CONTROLLING FUTURE PANDEMICS” by Alice Park
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Summary provided by 2244
Where we have been successful in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic the credit lies in having spent wisely over decades developing the field of biomedical research on molecular genetics, molecular virology and the development of novel RNA-based vaccines. These developments depended both on creating new technology and on training new experts. Currently and going forward the challenge is to create global networks that can efficiently use molecular surveillance to identify new viral and other pathogenic microbes, study them and develop effective treatments most based on knowing the RNA or DNA sequences and understanding the molecular and cellular mechanisms that allow infection. These data will be combined with clinical information to define effective strategies to arrest the spread of disease and to treat those infected.
The article features the work of Dr. David Ho and colleagues (Columbia University) who have been stressing the COVID-19 agent SARS-CoV-2 to create mutations that might create a selective infectious advantage. With that information at hand the next step is to“understand how the virus might respond to new treatments.” Ho is quoted as saying “it’s the genetics, stupid” meaning that knowing the RNA sequence of each new variant using bioinformatics and the knowledge of how changes in the RNA sequence affect the infectious mechanism those at the frontline of viral surveillance can then predict the likelihood of mutation conferring a selective advantage like improving its ability to infect cells or evade a current vaccine or monoclonal antibody treatment. According to Francis deSouza (Illumina-a firm making high capacity nucleic acid sequencers) “Genomics and genomic epidemiology have emerged as an incredibly powerful tool in fighting this pandemic...and they will be essential to how we fight future biological threats, whether it’s the next coronavirus or antimicrobial resistance or even bioterrorism.”
As good as this sounds, our current efforts are not as coordinated-nationally in America or elsewhere or -globally as they need be. Much of the sequencing has so far been performed in academic laboratories for research purposes rather than in scaled-up non-profit or commercial laboratories constructed for efficiency. Congress “earmarked $1.7 billion for the CDC to ramp up it’s sequencing efforts…” CDC is sequencing 20,000 to 30,000 COVID positive samples each week to identify new variants but critics believe more is needed and note that “states are sequencing under 2% of their positive samples.”
Sumit Chanda (Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute) comments …”to get serious about preparing for the next pandemics, there needs to be a global command and control infrastructure, with transparency from all governments around the world...these viruses don’t know national boundaries...Ideally what you want to do is surveillance sequencing...That means going out to hot zones, going into animals, going into the local population and doing genomic sequencing to see what’s popping up.” Gareth Williams (Oncologica) notes that “In some ways the sequencing from airports is acting as an early radar system to find out what new variants are spreading around the world.”