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Against New Variants, WHO Urges Countries To Ramp up Genomic Surveillance

Against New Variants, WHO Urges Countries To Ramp up Genomic Surveillance

Colorised micrograph of an immune cell infected with the novel coronavirus. Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH/Handout via Reuters.

In the race between COVID-19 vaccines and the emergence of new variants of the novel coronavirus, the WHO has called for scientists around the world to sequence more genomes of the virus to understand how it is evolving and affecting people worldwide.

Sequencing the virus’s genome could help scientists understand how its evolution influences trends in the spread of infection and the severity of COVID-19 disease. Such information of the virus’s genetic diversity could also help assess the efficacy of current efforts to control the pandemic.

In its latest update, the WHO said that although the number of infections worldwide has fallen by 16% in a week, to fewer than 500,000 active cases, many regions are beginning to tackle newer, faster-spreading variants. The three main ones at present are those that were first reported from the UK (B.1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.135) and Brazil (P.1), and all spread faster than the ‘original’ virus. B.1.1.7 has already spread to 94 countries; B.1.135, to 46; and P.1, to 21.

Amid concerns that the virus could become even more contagious, and probably less susceptible to vaccines as it mutates, genomic sequencing can help design better public health measures to identify potential sites of new outbreaks and vaccination drives.

Also read: Brazil, Country With ‘Worst COVID-19 Response’, Confronts Threat of New Variant

The WHO has also urged countries to share their findings through a global surveillance network of doctors, laboratories and public health departments.

Countries or regions with poor genomic surveillance are at risk of letting locally emergent variants circulate for longer in the population before they are spotted.

In a step to expand efforts to identify important coronavirus mutations in the US, President Joe Biden’s administration announced a $1.6 billion investment to improve the country’s COVID-19 response, with genome sequencing as one of the thrusts.

The Indian government recently set up the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortia (INSACOG) to detect variants of concern before it is too late, and to determine the variants currently circulating in India.

In Yavatmal district of Madhya Pradesh, scientists have already found viruses with a certain mutation (N440K) to be more common. The same mutation is currently prevalent in Andhra Pradesh as well. Understanding how the same variant of the virus could have spread to these two regions requires large studies.

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