White House Commits $1.7 Billion Toward Study of Virus Variants

Funding will help individual states identify regional variants before they take hold and spread across the country.

Michigan, where diners are pictured here eating on March 25, is confronting an alarming spike of Covid-19 infections fueled by loosened restrictions, a more infectious variant and pandemic fatigue. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

(CN) — Noting that half of coronavirus cases are being caused by variants, the federal government announced a $1.7 billion effort toward genomic studies meant to track mutations of the virus that causes Covid-19 before they become dangerous. 

Surveillance is vital to spotting and studying variants that spread more easily, Covid-19 senior adviser Andy Slavitt said during a Friday morning press briefing. The goal is to “get ahead of dangerous variants before they emerge,” he said.  

The injection of funding into virus genomic-sequencing research is part of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. Money will go to individual states, distributed through the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Several regional variants, including a New York variant that the CDC is keeping an eye on, have already shown up in the United States. 

“This funding will enable CDC and states to do more genomic sequencing as we activate the nation’s great research capabilities,” Slavitt said, “to detect variants earlier and increase our visibility into emerging threats.” 

Genomic sequencing involves decoding coronavirus DNA to parse out unique changes from one strain of virus to another. 

Viruses constantly mutate as a means to survive. When a mutation benefits the virus, like allowing it to spread more easily, that mutation is likely to stick around and become a dominant strain. 

In addition to being more transmissible, certain viruses can circumvent the immune system, raising concerns about a vaccine-resistant strain potentially developing. Other mutations change the way viruses bind to cells, allowing them to cause more damage at the cellular level and make those infected sicker. 

The variant originally discovered in the United Kingdom, known as B.1.1.7, has started to dominate parts of the Midwest and East Coast. It is believed to be between 50% and 70% more transmissible.  

During the week of March 27, the U.K. variant made up 44% of cases, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said. New data on variant cases will be released soon, she assured, but the presence has likely grown greater in the past few weeks. 

The White House explained Friday that early detection of variants can give state and local health leaders a heads up, allowing them to implement prevention measures to stop a variant from spreading. 

Already, the screening process has ramped up, officials said. 

In early February, U.S. laboratories were looking at 8,000 Covid-19 strains per week. With $200 million going toward the process, that has increased to 29,000 samples per week. The new funding will expand the genetic screening even further. 

Of the new funding, $1 billion will go to genetic sequencing, with $240 million to individual states. Six new research centers for genomic epidemiology will also be created, funded with $400 million of the total. And $300 million will go toward a national bioinformatics research infrastructure, including expanding a CDC fellowship program. 

Officials said the new funding will not only help fight the Covid-19 pandemic, but also help the country prepare for the potential threat of future viruses. 

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