With no robust system to identify genetic variations of the coronavirus, experts warn that the U.S. 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, has the potential to explode in the U.S. the next few weeks, putting new pressures on hospitals already near the breaking point.
The U.S. 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 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. But that is a tiny fraction of the $16 trillion in economic losses that the U.S. 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."
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.
Experts point to Britain as a model. British researchers sequence the genome — the complete genetic material in a coronavirus — from up to 10% of new positive samples. Even if the U.S. sequenced just 1% of genomes from across the country, or about 2,000 a day, that would shine a bright light on the new variant as well as other variants that may emerge.
But over the past month, U.S. researchers have only sequenced a few hundred genomes a day, said GISAID, an international database. And just a few states have been responsible for most of the effort. California is in the lead, with 8,896 genomes. In North Dakota, which has had more than 93,500 cases so far, researchers haven't sequenced a single genome.