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Politics, Policy & Law

Biden testing pilot kicks off U.S. catch-up on viral genomic surveillance

Feb 18, 2021 | 12:32 AM GMT

The first $1.7 billion spent in the Biden administration’s $50 billion testing plan includes a down payment to boost the CDC’s genomic sequencing capacity threefold.

The remainder will be channeled toward regional coordination of testing for priority populations and domestic manufacturing of raw testing materials.

In a briefing Wednesday, White House Testing Coordinator Carole Johnson described this first infusion of funding as a “pilot” until President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is enacted by Congress.   

The biggest allocation is $815 million for HHS and DoD to increase domestic manufacturing of supplies whose shortages have limited testing capacity, including filter pipette tips and nitrocellulose membranes for rapid lateral flow antigen tests.

HHS and DoD will invest another $650 million to expand testing in K-8 schools and underserved congregate settings like homeless shelters. Through this program, HHS will establish regional coordinating centers to match local testing capacity and need, a load-balancing strategy undertaken by private health administrators managing workplace screening programs

While the “almost $200 million” dedicated to ramping up the CDC’s viral genomic sequencing capacity from 7,000 to 25,000 samples per week was the smallest line item announced, Johnson described it as a “surge in funding” driven by the need to stay ahead of viral variants, which could develop resistance to vaccines and therapies.  

We’re quickly infusing targeted resources here because the time is critical when it comes to these fast-moving variants,” she said.

More funding to support the CDC’s viral genomic sequencing work could come via a $1.8 billion increase in CDC funding proposed in Congressional budget legislation.

Also on Wednesday, the EU bloc announced the launch of the HERA Incubator, part of the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) coordinating pandemic surveillance and response across Europe.

The incubator will provide at least €75 million ($90.3 million) in new funding to support the development of tests to detect COVID-19 variants and a surveillance effort to sequence 5% of all positive tests across Europe to better identify and monitor the spread of new variants. Research on new variants will see at least €150 million in support from HERA.  

Among the most advanced viral surveillance systems is the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), which launched in March of last year with £20 million ($33 million) from the U.K. government and Wellcome Trust, and received an additional £12.2 million ($16.1 million) in November from the U.K.’s Department for Health and Social Care Testing Innovation Fund.

As of Jan. 22, COG-UK was sequencing 10,000 samples per week, and the consortium expected to expand its capacity to 20,000 samples per week by March.

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