U.S. Steps Up with $1.7 Billion for COVID-19 Variant Fight

U.S. Steps Up with $1.7 Billion for COVID-19 Variant Fight
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One of the odd aspects of the U.S. fight against COVID-19 has been how far behind the country has lagged in sequencing. Countries such as the U.K. and Iceland have led the field, tracking the disease’s spread and the emergence of variants. Now the Biden administration is stepping into the breach with a $1.7 billion investment aimed at dramatically ramping up the country’s COVID-19 sequencing capacity.

This builds upon a steady uptick in financing for sequencing in the US.  Over the last few months CDC has awarded COVID-19 sequencing contracts to companies including: Aegis Sciences, Fulgent Genetics, Infinity BiologiX, Lapcorp, and Quest diagnostics.

According to a White House press release, the new funding, allocated through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “will help the CDC, states, and other jurisdictions more effectively detect and track variants by scaling genomic sequencing efforts. With the information from sequencing, the CDC and state and local public health leaders can implement known prevention measures to stop the spread.”

The goal is to speed up the country’s sequencing rate from about 8,000 strains per week, to 29,000 samples per week.

The funding includes $1 billion to expand genomic sequencing and help the CDC, states, and other jurisdiction to improve their surveillance of COVID mutations and monitor their circulation. Much of this work is done through partnerships with private and public laboratories.

There is also $400 million for “innovation initiatives” including the launch of the new innovative Centers of Excellence in Genomic Epidemiology, which will establish six Centers of Excellence that will operate in partnership with state health departments and academic institutions.

Finally, the bill includes $300 million to build and support a National Bioinformatics Infrastructure that will support the field throughout the U.S. public health system, and according to the WH release, will create: “a unified system for sharing and analyzing sequence data in a way that protects privacy but allows more informed decision making.”

The CDC has been steadily increasingly its support of COVID sequencing. The agency awarded nearly $9 million through a broad agency announcement (BAA) in 2020 to support the SARS-CoV-2 Sequencing for Public Health Emergency Response, Epidemiology and Surveillance (SPHERES) initiative. A release stated that “SPHERES builds upon the 6 years of investments from the CDC Advanced Molecular Detection (AMD) program which integrates the latest next-generation genomic sequencing technologies with bioinformatics and epidemiology expertise across CDC and the nation.”

Since November 2020, the CDC reports that it has regularly received SARS-CoV-2 samples from state health departments and other public health agencies for sequencing, further characterization, and evaluation. They state that, “On January 25, 2021, the NS3 system was scaled-up to process 750 samples per week. Notable strength of this system is the regular collection of numerous representative specimens from across the country and characterization of viruses beyond what sequencing alone can provide.”

This new funding should help public health agencies defend against the concerning variants now spreading around the globe. The funding distribution will start in early May, the breakdown of its allocation by state is available at the WH Website: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/04/16/fact-sheet-biden-administration-announces-1-7-billion-investment-to-fight-covid-19-variants/