The New York Times, January 6, 2021

Link

With no robust system to identify genetic variations of the coronavirus, experts warn that the United States is woefully ill-equipped to track a dangerous new mutant, leaving health officials blind as they try to combat the grave threat.

The variant, which is now surging in Britain and burdening its hospitals with new cases, is rare for now in the United States. But it has the potential to explode in the next few weeks, putting new pressures on American hospitals, some of which are already near the breaking point.

The United States has no large-scale, nationwide system for checking coronavirus genomes for new mutations, including the ones carried by the new variant. About 1.4 million people test positive for the virus each week, but researchers are only doing genome sequencing — a method that can definitively spot the new variant — on fewer than 3,000 of those weekly samples. And that work is done by a patchwork of academic, state and commercial laboratories.

Scientists say that a national surveillance program would be able to determine just how widespread the new variant is and help contain emerging hot spots, extending the crucial window of time in which vulnerable people across the country could get vaccinated. That would cost several hundred million dollars or more. That may seem like a steep price tag, but it’s a tiny fraction of the $16 trillion in economic losses that the United States is estimated to have sustained because of Covid-19.

“We need some sort of leadership,” said Dr. Charles Chiu, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, whose team spotted some of the first California cases of the new variant. “This has to be a system that is implemented on a national level. Without that kind of dedicated support, it’s simply not going to get done.”

With such a system in place, health officials could warn the public in affected areas and institute new measures to contend with the variant — such as using better masks, contact tracing, closing schools or temporary lockdowns — and do so early, rather than waiting until a new surge flooded hospitals with the sick.

The incoming Biden administration may be open to the idea. “The president-elect supports a national testing program that can help stop the spread of Covid-19 and find variants,” said T.J. Ducklo, a spokesman for the transition. “That means more tests, increased lab capacity and genome sequencing. This is vital to control Covid-19 and to prepare the United States to detect and stop future disease threats.”

Experts point to Britain as a model for what the United States could do. British researchers sequence the genome — that is, the complete genetic material in a coronavirus — from up to 10 percent of new positive samples. Even if the U.S. sequenced just one percent of genomes from across the country, or about 2,000 new samples a day, that would shine a bright light on the new variant, as well as other variants that may emerge.

Copyright 2021 The New York Times Company. Reprinted with permission.