COVID-19 is still a public health challenge. New variants are emerging and hospitalizations are rising for the first time in several months. As a result, countries are scrambling to prepare in case the pandemic roars back. To support global monitoring and control, the World Health Organization (WHO) has published a “step-by-step” guide for developing a national genomics-based pandemic surveillance strategy.
“Considerations for developing a national genomic surveillance strategy or action plan for pathogens with pandemic and epidemic potential,” outlines an approach for developing such a strategy. The report is aimed at all stakeholders, including health authorities, donors, public health officers, academia, the private sector, and laboratory specialists.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of genomics for preparing and responding to pathogens with pandemic and epidemic potential. As countries build on the genomic surveillance gains from this pandemic, questions are arising. How should genomic surveillance capacities be sustained? What priority pathogens should have genomic surveillance components? What will it cost to operate genomic surveillance systems?
According to WHO, by December 31, 2022, 84% (163 of 194) of its Member States had sequencing capability for SARS-CoV-2. This represents a 58% increase (from 103 to 163) in the proportion of Member States with sequencing capability between February 2021 and December 2022. The U.K. showed the way by stepping up sequencing capability early on. As of early 2022, the country had completed over 2 million SARS-CoV-2 whole genome sequences.
“Tools like the step-by-step guide can assist countries in elaborating national plans and inform capacity building needs. Together, this will help us collectively achieve the Global Strategy’s key measure of success—that by 2032, all 194 WHO Member States have, or have access to, timely genomic sequencing for pathogens with pandemic and epidemic potential,” said Gina Samaan, Unit Head, Pandemic Preparedness Global Platforms, Epidemic and Pandemic Preparedness and Prevention, WHO.
“WHO’s step-by-step guide provides an excellent framework to policy makers and health authorities to strengthen national genomic surveillance infrastructure and capabilities,” said Leena Inamdar, Consultant in Global Health Security and Head of NVAP Program, U.K. Health Security Agency.
She added, “…this tool will be of immense practical value to improve the quality and timely reporting of genomic data for rapid development of vaccines and therapeutics, in line with the UK Health Security Agency’s New Variant Assessment Platform goals to support pandemic preparedness and the 100 Days Mission.”
Giving an example, Luke W. Meredith, WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, said, “Applying the step-by-step guide in Oman, it provided good information and guidance on the key steps necessary to build a framework for a national genomics program. The value of bringing together key stakeholders with expertise in a wide range of areas, for open discussion about the principles, goals and challenges associated with implementing genomics was clear.”
“By encapsulating key considerations and presenting a systematic stepwise approach, this tool empowers nations to harness genomic data effectively, enhancing their ability to monitor infectious diseases, tailor interventions, and ultimately bolster global health security,” said Toni Whistler, PhD, Laboratory and COVID-19 Diagnostics and Testing Specialist, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.