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COVID and beyond: labs unite to boost genomic surveillance globally

photo of COVID
A medical worker administers a dose of the “Cominarty” Pfizer-Bivalent coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine to a patient at a vaccination centre in Nice, Dec. 7, 2022. (REUTERS/Eric Gaillard/File Photo)
By Jennifer Rigby | REUTERS

Two laboratories in Britain and South Africa, which were at the forefront of tracking new coronavirus variants during the pandemic, have teamed up to keep the focus on genomic surveillance globally as the COVID emergency recedes.

The teams said they were worried governments and funders may pull back from such surveillance, despite its potential to better monitor many infectious diseases, from malaria to cholera.

“One of the big benefits that came from the pandemic was this huge global investment in infrastructure,” said John Sillitoe, director of the Genomic Surveillance Unit (GSU) at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, one of the two partners.

In genomic surveillance, scientists first get data about the genetic material of a virus or organism in a process called sequencing. Then they analyse the data from several samples to look for similarities and differences between them, for example to track how the virus is changing or spreading.

The process has been around for decades, but came to the forefront as scientists and public health teams tracked the fast-changing coronavirus.

But Sillitoe said he feared assets needed for the process – like sequencing machines bought in the pandemic — were now “sitting idle” in some countries, which would be a missed opportunity.

“We have a lot of blind spots, both on pathogens and on regions,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation at Stellenbosch University, the other lab in the partnership. During COVID, his team confirmed the discovery of the Beta and Omicron variants.

De Oliveira, who will also join the GSU as a deputy director, said the potential for other dseases was huge.

For example, work by the two labs, as well as a global climate-related disease consortium, has doubled the number of sequences available for dengue, chikungunya, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes in just the last year, he said.

The labs will work together to share resources as well as supporting partners in disease surveillance globally with expertise and materials, alongside wider World Health Organization-led efforts, de Oliveira and Sillitoe said.

Editor’s Note: Reporting by Jennifer Rigby; Editing by Nick Macfie

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