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White House tackles COVID-19 variants with $1.7 billion boost for genomic sequencing

Courtney Subramanian, USA TODAY
·3 min read
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WASHINGTON – The White House on Friday announced plans to help states detect and curb the spread of emerging COVID-19 variants by investing $1.7 billion in genomic sequencing, or the process to map the genetic code of a virus.

The funding, which comes from President Joe Biden's nearly $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package, will be allocated through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help states and other jurisdictions monitor potentially more contagious COVID-19 strains, including the variants driving another surge in Michigan. New strains make up about half of all COVID-19 infections across the country.

Though the U.S. continues to set new daily records for administering vaccines, variants like the B.1.1.7 are beginning to infect children, in what University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm has called a "brand new ball game."

The money will be used toward collecting COVID-19 samples, sequencing of the virus and sharing subsequent data, according to a fact sheet provided by the White House.

"State and local public health departments are on the frontlines of beating back the pandemic, but they need more capacity to detect these variants, early on before dangerous outbreaks," White House COVID-19 Andy Slavitt said during a coronavirus briefing. "This investment will give public health officials the chance to react more quickly to prevent and stop the spread."

The White House coronavirus response team also announced it was opening another federally run vaccination site in Bessemer, Alabama, that will have the capacity to administer 7,000 shots per week. By next week, Slavitt said, the administration will have opened 37 mass vaccination sites in 26 states, with a combined capacity of administering a total of 125,000 shots per day.

As variants spread across the country, the U.S. has reported 30% of adults are fully vaccinated and nearly 50% of the U.S. adult population have received at least one vaccine dose, according to data from the CDC.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, told MSNBC people may need to get booster shots for COVID vaccines in a year. Recent data shows that Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines provide protection for at least six months.

Sequencing happens behind the scenes when someone gets tested for the coronavirus. If the test is positive, the sample may be sent to another lab for sequencing, especially if the person has had COVID-19 before or has been vaccinated. That provides the genetic code of a virus, laying out for scientists a precise map for how to defeat it.

Until recently, only a fraction of samples in the U.S. were sequenced. An initial $200 million investment by the Biden administration quadrupled the rate of testing beginning in mid-February. The latest investment is expected to further expand genomic sequencing from its current rate of 29,000 COVID-19 strains per week.

More: In the race to stay ahead of COVID-19 variants, US lags globally

The investment also includes $400 million to establish six "Centers of Excellence in Genomic Epidemiology," a partnership between state health departments and academic institutions for research and development, and $300 million to create a national bioinformatics system to share and analyze sequencing data. The administration will allocate the first portion of funding in early May, with a second tranche expected to be invested over the next several years.

This year, the United States ranks 33rd in the world for its rate of sequencing, falling between Burkina Faso and Zimbabwe, according to COVID CoV Genomic, led by researchers at Harvard and MIT. The top three nations – Iceland, Australia and New Zealand – sequenced at a rate 55 to 95 times greater.

Contributing: David Heath

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden tackles COVID-19 variants with $1.7B for genomic sequencing