Biden administration investing $1.7B into tracking, combating COVID-19 variants

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President Biden’s administration on Friday announced its plans to invest $1.7 billion into tracking and combating COVID-19 variants as new strains make up about half of all infections across the nation.

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The administration unveiled its planned distribution of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan directed at assisting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local governments in detecting and monitoring COVID-19 variants.

“Our ability to spot variants as they emerge and spread is vital, particularly as we aim to get ahead of dangerous variances, before they emerge as they are in the Midwest right now,” Andy Slavitt, senior White House pandemic adviser, said at a Friday COVID-19 response team briefing.

“This investment will give public health officials the chance to react more quickly to prevent and stop the spread,” he added.

Part of the commitment involves designating money to improve genomic sequencing of COVID-19 samples, which helps scientists identify variants and “potentially deadly mutations.”

In February, the U.S. was sequencing about 8,000 samples per week until the administration funneled almost $200 million to increase the pace.

“Despite having world class researchers and dedicated state and local public health leaders, when we arrived, the U.S. was sequencing only a small fragment of what other countries were,” Slavitt said. “This hampered our ability to find and react to these new variants.”

The CDC will allocate the funding that intends to boost genomic sequencing from its current level of about 29,000 COVID-19 strains per week.

“Thanks to today’s funding from the American Rescue Plan, states and the CDC will expand that even further and, importantly, provide states with more resources to expand their own efforts to increase geographic coverage of sequencing to better detect emerging threats like variants,” the White House said in a release.

“This will mean that both existing and any new COVID variants could be detected faster, before they grow prevalent,” it added.

The plan allocates $1 billion to bolstering genomic sequencing through providing money to laboratories, including state laboratories, for collecting COVID-19 samples, sequencing the DNA and releasing the data. States, territories and five local governments in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles County, New York City and Philadelphia will receive a portion of the funding.

A total of $400 million will go toward innovation initiatives, including creating six Centers of Excellence in Genomic Epidemiology that will work with state health departments and academic institutions to research genomic sequencing.

Another $300 million is set for developing a National Bioinformatics Infrastructure to be used as a data system to track information on the sequencing of COVID-19 variants across the U.S.

“At this critical juncture in the pandemic, these new resources will help ensure states and the CDC have the support they need to fight back against dangerous variants and slow the spread of the virus,” White House COVID-19 Testing Coordinator Carole Johnson said in a release.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky declared earlier this month that the variant that was first discovered in the U.K. is now the most common strain of COVID-19 spreading in the U.S.

As of last weekend, the U.S. has documented more than 20,000 cases involving the variant first discovered in the U.K., 453 cases involving the strain first found in South Africa and 497 cases with the variant first found in Brazil, according to CDC data.

At the same time, the race to vaccinate Americans is ongoing with 30 percent of adults being fully vaccinated and almost half of adults receiving at least one dose.

Top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said the three vaccines that have been given in the U.S. protect “to varying degrees” against the serious diseases caused by the major variants present in the country. All the vaccines have been shown to be effective against the strain first found in the U.K.

-Updated 11:21 a.m.

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