Boosted by COVID, genomic sequencing gains traction globally

As researchers raced to identify new COVID-19 subvariants, worldwide capacity for genomic sequencing increased, enabling the application of the process for other public health needs.

Genomic sequencing allows researchers to better track viruses by identifying alterations in their genetic profile, according to the CDC.

Countries around the world wanted to conduct genomic sequencing on COVID-19 viruses, without sending samples overseas and waiting weeks for results. Throughout Asia and Africa, labs acquired sequencing machinery and computer processing capacity to perform their own genomic sequencing.

The Pasteur Institute of Cambodia, for example, “lowered the cost of sequencing a SARS-CoV-2 genome from US $1,000 in early 2020 to $20 by the end of 2021,” Nature says. The institute subsequently used the equipment to examine an avian flu case in a 3-year-old boy, and was able to come to the conclusion that it was unlikely to spread to other people.

The number of African countries with next-gen sequencing capacity grew from seven in 2018 to 38 in 2019, and, along with sequencing more than 140,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes, these labs sequenced Ebola and other viruses, Nature says.

Pandemic prevention

In September, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) decided “to expand and strengthen genomic surveillance of pathogens with pandemic and epidemic potential in the Region,” which included developing capacity and extending a network of genomic sequencing facilities.

Despite support from organizations like the Gates Foundation and the European Commission, the capacity for genome sequencing is inconsistent on a global level, even if it is relatively well supported in the United States. Without greater financing, there are worries that the chance to move quickly against future pandemics may be lost.

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