New funds for Georgia to boost tracking and fighting coronavirus variants

Georgia’s COVID-19 pandemic response is poised to get ahead of the game, following an investment the Biden administration announced Friday into virus variant surveillance, health scientists said.

“This is a resource that’s going to help,” said Dr. Mehul Suthar, an assistant professor at the Emory Vaccine Center who is researching the effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines against newly emerging variants. “Ultimately, if we know what virus variants of concern are emerging, it has the potential to save lives.”

Precisely how it will help — and how much — are still to be seen.

Federal officials announced Friday that they are providing $1.7 billion to public health officials across the country to fight highly infectious COVID-19 variants. Of that money, $1 billion will go toward building up the nation’s woeful surveillance system to seek out new, more infectious variants of viruses before they have a chance to take over.

The feds are sending $6.7 million of the money directly to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Variants now pose a major threat in the fight against the pandemic.

A more contagious variant of the coronavirus, first identified in Britain, is now the most common source of new infections in Georgia. That variant, called B.1.1.7, represents close to 75% of all new cases in Georgia, according to analysis by Helix, a lab testing company.

New cases in Georgia had been steadily falling since January, but now are slightly ticking up.

Research suggests the B.1.1.7 variant is both about 60% more contagious and about 60% more deadly than the original version of the coronavirus.

Knowing what variants are spreading is important for devising public health strategies and advice to the public. If surveillance isn’t sharp, then when a state like Georgia starts to see coronavirus cases climb again, it’s difficult to know whether that’s because more infectious variants are spreading or because of something people are doing, like decreasing use of masks.

State boosting capacity

Whether someone has the U.K. variant, the South African variant, or another variant, when they take a simple coronavirus test they will just get a “positive” result. Finding out which variant they have takes more work.

Looking for variants requires taking someone’s coronavirus sample, then running a time-taking, multi-step analysis to sequence the gene of the virus.

Professor Jin-Xiong She is director of the Center for Biotechnology and Genomic Medicine at Augusta University Medical Center.  Professor She is shown here working in the genomics core laboratory with gene sequencing machinery.  (PHOTO by Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com )
Professor Jin-Xiong She is director of the Center for Biotechnology and Genomic Medicine at Augusta University Medical Center. Professor She is shown here working in the genomics core laboratory with gene sequencing machinery. (PHOTO by Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com )

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Georgia Public Health Lab has only this year started doing genomic sequencing, and just this week trained staff on how to use additional machinery the lab bought to boost capacity, said a spokeswoman, Nancy Nydam.

It is now up to 100 samples a week and hopes with its recently acquired new capacity to increase the number to 400 samples a week. That was before DPH got the news of the $6.7 million.

DPH hasn’t decided what to spend that on yet.

When it comes to genomic sequencing for surveillance, the U.S. is far behind other countries in such as the United Kingdom and Denmark.

Scientists track the spread of virus variants through reports to a nonprofit consortium called GISAID.

As of Friday, the United States had submitted 34,702 counts of variant cases. That compares to 203,844 submissions from the United Kingdom, a nation with a fraction of the U.S.’ overall COVID-19 infections.

Dr. Anne Piantadosi, an assistant professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory University who has been doing sequencing since the earliest days of the pandemic, said the sequencing process could be speeded up with robotic instruments to help with some tasks. It also could be boosted by researchers working around the clock – the kinds of steps that could be supported by an increase in federal funding.

Future variants a threat

It is important to have a surveillance network set up before variants emerge, said Suthar. Just like fighting a war, it’s the difference between being able to have advance intelligence to plan ahead with resources and strategies—as opposed to finding out only at the moment you’re already under siege.

Increasing sequencing would also help scientists understand how different variants behave, whether they are more contagious or deadly, and whether they could slip by newly developed treatments and vaccines.

Suthar’s work happens after the surveillance network finds new variants. He receives the new variants, and then he tests them against the available vaccines. He and his team were able to show that all the current vaccines are still effective against the variants detected in the UK and South Africa. They also found that the vaccines are slightly less effective against the variants.

They were able to pass that information on to public health officials, and it’s important intelligence. The end result is knowing that it’s all the more important for Georgians to get vaccinated fast, because doing that can protect against the variants spreading and doing yet more damage.

The federal funding comes from the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package signed into law last month. This portion of the relief package is designed to help states and federal agencies monitor, track, and defeat emerging variants that are currently threatening pockets of the country. Additional funding will come over the next few years, federal officials said.

PANDEMIC WEAPONRY INVESTMENT

The Biden administration’s announcement Friday of $1.7 billion into pandemic surveillance is intended to both fight COVID-19 and build permanent infrastructure to fight pandemics in the U.S.

  • $1 billion: To expand genomic sequencing now. This goes to the CDC and states to ramp up the ability to sequence virus genes to know which virus variants are circulating, and then to pool and share that data. Georgia is getting $6.7 million of this, part of $240 million going to states.
  • $400 million: To establish six Centers of Excellence in Genomic Epidemiology and other initiatives. These six new centers will link government and other genomic research centers like universities, and focus on cutting-edge research.
  • $300 million: To build and support a National Bioinformatics Infrastructure, the data system necessary to collect, share and implement genomic sequencing data.

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