Feb 1, 2021
In January, a California variant of the COVID virus was discovered. This discovery is not very surprising since it is well-known that viruses constantly mutate and adapt. The United Kingdom, South Africa, Denmark and Brazil previously have also discovered variants more contagious and possibly more deadly than the first is.
But what is surprising is how late this discovery by the U.S. health department really is. There may easily be many more variants in the U.S., which may not respond to current treatments and vaccines the same way, so tracking variants of COVID virus is a must to prevent the spread of this disease.
Although this is an urgent issue, as of this month only a minuscule number, 0.3% of samples collected from COVID patients, have been sequenced in the United States. The U.S. ranks 43rd in the world in doing this vital work, according to the global genome sequencing database.
Scientists and medical staff can easily find virus variants by obtaining samples from the patients and using genome sequencing techniques and methods, which are well-known and well-developed, and are regularly used to track, for example, flu virus variants.
But the United States does not have a systematic genetic surveillance system. This is a consequence of the Federal and State governments’ destruction of much of the public health system: the cutting of much-needed funding and resources over many decades, and channeling of this funding to the rich and their companies.
Above all, having the proper staff and providing them with necessary tools are the most crucial elements to run an efficient genetic surveillance system. “More than anything else, the sequencing has come down to staffing,” according to the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL). The medical labs have been frustrated with “incredibly tight” supplies used both for sequencing and other laboratory work. Omai Garner of UCLA said: “We just didn’t have the capacity. The people I would use for that sequencing are the same that were doing the diagnostic testing.”
The U.S. is a world leader in medical innovation and treatment, and has a sophisticated biomedical research industry backed by the best academic researchers, universities, and institutes; and is a very rich country. So, this failure is not for lack of resources and infrastructure, but because of an unwillingness to engage the necessary levels of importance and staffing.