Amid recent reports that the U.S. ranks 43rd globally for sequencing to find new SARS-CoV-2 variants, AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) calls on the Biden administration to utilize the Defense Production Act to seek out new virus strains—a proactive move that would provide a sufficient number of requisitioned labs to ensure the United States is operating at maximum research capacity.
Genomic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, the technique used to read and interpret the genetic information of the virus that causes COVID-19, is critical to following its spread, developing vaccines and understanding how it mutates into more virulent strains. Without comprehensive sequencing across all nations—and particularly in the U.S.—new strains might go undetected and lead to higher rates of morbidity and mortality, as well as overwhelm healthcare systems and economies.
The Defense Production Act grants the president powers to expedite and expand the supply of materials and services from the U.S. industrial base needed to promote national defense.
“The U.S. response has floundered since the onset of this pandemic – timely virological surveillance is essential for getting a handle on the outbreak, particularly as the vaccine rollout accelerates,” said Dr. Jorge Saavedra, Executive Director of AHF’s Global Public Health Institute at the University of Miami. “We must know as soon as possible how prevalent new variants of SARS-CoV-2 are and what impact they will have on the effectiveness of current vaccines and other prevention methods. Identifying mutations now is probably as important as the production of ventilators was during the initial months of the pandemic.”
Among the 18 million cases reported in the U.S., only 51,212 cases – less than one percent – have been genetically analyzed as of December 2020, whereas the top two nations, Australia and New Zealand have sequenced 58.6% and 48.6% of cases, respectively. With only a fraction of a percent of cases analyzed, the U.S. CDC says new, potentially more virulent strains of SARS-CoV-2 are likely already spreading throughout the country.
“While it’s good to see declining numbers of daily COVID-19 deaths—we have no way of knowing what the future holds with new variants being discovered. As a global leader in biotechnology, if the U.S. does not expand scientific investment into the biology and surveillance of COVID-19, we will never reach effective and sustainable strategies to end this pandemic in the U.S. and globally,” said AHF President Michael Weinstein. “With new variants already discovered in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil, it’s clear that the U.S. must take a strong lead in the genomic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, both to ensure the future of our nation, and to also uncover vital, lifesaving information to be shared with the world.”
The U.S. successfully invested in, produced and delivered COVID-19 vaccines at a pace unmatched in human history—representing the largest government stimulus package the pharmaceutical industry has ever seen. That same effort should continue in the development of large-scale genomic sequencing infrastructures across biotechnology firms, healthcare institutions and university laboratories. Those steps will help guarantee real-time genomic epidemiology data for COVID-19 and other infectious pathogens to inform public health interventions and ensure new lines of defense against more virulent strains.