Two British and South African laboratories previously at the forefront of tracking newly occurring variants of the Coronavirus have teamed up to maintain a focus on global genomic surveillance.
While the technologies to track disease at a genomic level have been under development for decades, the power of genomic surveillance for public health decision-making came to prominence during the Covid-19 pandemic.
To carry out genomic surveillance, scientists first obtain data on the genetic material of a virus or organism through a process called sequencing. The data is then analysed across several samples to determine similarities and differences between them while tracking how the virus is changing or spreading.
As reported by news agency Reuters, with the slow of the pandemic, both teams expressed concern that governments and funders could withdraw from genomic surveillance, despite the importance of its capacity to monitor many widespread infectious diseases including malaria and cholera.
John Sillitoe, Director of the Genomic Surveillance Unit (GSU) at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, one of the two labs in the partnership, said that: “One of the big benefits that came from the pandemic was this huge global investment in infrastructure.”
Sillitoe pointed out that technology needed for the process, including sequencing machines bought in the pandemic, might now be “sitting idle” in some countries, which he views as a missed opportunity.
Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation at Stellenbosch University, the other lab in the partnership, said that: “We have a lot of blind spots, both on pathogens and on regions”. De Oliveira’s team confirmed the discovery of the Beta and Omicron variants during the pandemic.
Many factors are driving up the threat from infectious diseases including climate change, habitat loss, urbanisation, and globalisation. In the last year alone, according to de Oliviera, alongside a global climate-related disease consortium, work carried out by the labs doubled the number of sequences now available for dengue, chikungunya, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
The communications team at the Wellcome Sanger Institute has confirmed that the two labs will work together to share resources while supporting partners in disease surveillance globally with expertise and materials. They also emphasised the strong alignment of their activities with the mission of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) new International Pathogen Surveillance Network (IPSN).
This comes after news that the WHO has classified the JN.1 Covid-19 strain as a ‘variant of interest’, but has stated that current evidence shows that its risk to public health is low.