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Experts have called for genomic surveillance to be mobilized to stave off worldwide threats to health from infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance.

Genomic surveillance involves monitoring and studying genetic changes and variations in disease-causing organisms such as viruses and bacteria.

In COVID-19, sequencing the entire genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 and combining this with epidemiologic and clinical data contributed to genomic surveillance, through which the virus could be traced and new variants detected in order to guide public health responses.

Now, an international collective of clinical and public health microbiologists from the Study Groups of the European Society for Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ESCMID) has called for investment into data-sharing platforms, new technology, and cross-sector collaboration to tackle future pandemics.

In a push outlined in the journal Frontiers in Science, they call for best practice to be shared between health professionals and countries, digital and laboratory public health infrastructure to be strengthened, and real-time data to be accessible through sharing platforms.

“Genomic surveillance allows us to discover emerging pathogens or drug-resistant diseases quickly, track their spread and predict how dangerous a pathogen is, in terms of contagiousness, virulence, resistance to antimicrobial drugs, and/or ability to escape vaccines,” explained lead author Marc Struelens, PhD, from the Université libre de Bruxelles, to Inside Precision Medicine.

“For clinicians, it means ‘precision public health’ alerts will provide clues for patient care to improve patient outcomes as well as help prevent epidemic spread in the community.”

The former chief microbiologist at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control stressed that scaling up genomic surveillance from local to global levels through a collaborative approach was critical to protecting against emerging threats like avian influenza and antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

The article calls for an upgrade to the infrastructure of whole genome sequencing worldwide so that it includes the latest sequencing technologies and analytical tools. It also advocates combining pathogen genomic information and epidemiological data into a global One Health surveillance system.

One Health, which is endorsed by the World Health Organization, recognizes that the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants, and the wider environment are closely linked and interdependent.

The researchers maintain that real-time monitoring of pathogens needs interoperability and interconnectivity between genomic, clinical and epidemiologic surveillance systems.

Responsible data sharing should be enabled through the FAIR (findability, accessibility, interoperability and reusability) principles.

They point out that whole genome sequencing microbes has already been contributed to the discovery of infectious diseases, early outbreak detection and the containment of epidemics caused by pathogens and resistance to antimicrobial medicines.

“As a community, we must continue to address challenges such as those faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and further invest in the infrastructure required for global integrated One Health genomic surveillance to enable a timely, unified approach to future pandemic and public health threats from infectious diseases and AMR,” the ESCMID team concluded.

“Infectious disease preparedness covers many aspects where genomic approaches can make a major difference, from detection of outbreaks and the emergence and spread of new variants to informing decisions on interventions, including vaccines and antimicrobials.”

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