What Is the United States Capacity for Using Next Generation Sequencing for COVID-19?

The country has been hit hard by the novel coronavirus pandemic, despite massive publicity campaigns for people to wear masks when they are not able to remain socially distant and cannot verify the vaccination status of others in crowded, indoor spaces. Meanwhile, not everyone is interested in getting vaccinated in the first place, compounding the issue.

Medical science is attacking the disease from many fronts, from personal protective equipment, the aforementioned masking being particularly crucial, along with therapeutic treatments and rapid testing. But we are nowhere out of the woods yet.

With the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 infections in the United States reaching hitting the 1-million milestone as of May 13, 2022, per a WebMD report citing Johns Hopkins University data, it’s all the more crucial to get more details about the genetics of the virus.

In a technologically advanced nation like the United States, one might think that the country’s medical system is on top of efforts to do next generation sequencing in clinics and laboratories to gain traction over the dreaded coronavirus.

Next Generation Sequencing COVID-19

The importance of next generation sequencing cannot be understated in the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Some people are acting as if the virus is no longer a threat, wanting to go about their daily lives before the days of masks, business lockdowns, and orders for people to shelter in place.

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One key problem with a public health threat like the coronavirus is that as it jumps from one person to the next via aerosol transmissions (as people talk, yell, laugh and just exhale near others while infected), the possibility of mutations increases. This results in variants, some of which may be more virulent than others, and some of which may spread faster and more readily.

To get a jump on these variants, we need to identify them at the genetic level. That’s where next generation sequencing comes in.

With next generation sequencing, scientists harness powerful, parallel-processing computer systems to scan genetic sequences. Indeed, NGS technology is made for situations like the coronavirus pandemic.

Which variety of the coronavirus caused an infection makes a difference to public health professionals. As a report from Wired noted, “the only way to tell which version of the coronavirus is causing an infection is to sequence its genome.”

But the United States only was able to increase the number of viral genomes it was scanning from 3,000 to upwards of 7,000 per week. Unfortunately, medical experts are indicating that pace is insufficient, per Wired. And we don’t have a lot of time to wait, as the virus keeps evolving. With more mutations left unchecked, we face the possibility of a more lethal strain evolving and getting the best of our healthcare system.

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A spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control told Wired, “There is currently no consensus in the US or globally on the optimal rate for genomic surveillance.” The country isn’t yet able to scale up testing capacity.

Wired notes that the cost to perform a viral sequence costs between $25 to $400, and the CDC has provided $14.5 million of funds to seven universities. It also released 10s of millions to entities such as Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, as well as public health laboratories.

In the United States, we had sampled 0.4 percent of coronavirus samples, while Denmark sequenced 50 percent, and the United Kingdom was responsible for applying NGS to 10 percent.

More Funding for Next Generation Sequencing?

It seems the answer to the problem of insufficient next generation sequencing will have to involve increasing how much we spend and doing a better job of coordinating research efforts at different laboratories and research institutions, from private companies to public universities and beyond.