US President Joe Biden’s administration said Wednesday it was investing nearly US$200 million to identify emerging strains of the coronavirus through expanded genome sequencing.
According to a statement, the investment will increase sequencing carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “more than threefold from about 7,000 samples per week to approximately 25,000”.
The US has been lagging behind dozens of countries in its efforts to track virus variants, putting at risk the progress made in containing its Covid-19 outbreak.
CDC director Rochelle Walensky told reporters that as of Tuesday, the US had detected 1,277 cases of the B.1.1.7 varant first identified in Britain, including the first case with the dangerous E484K mutation, which is common to the South African and Brazilian variants and makes them less susceptible to antibodies.
Nineteen cases of the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa and three cases of the P.1 variant have also been detected.
The administration is also spending US$650 million to increase testing in schools and underserved sites such as homeless shelters, and US$815 million to increase domestic manufacturing of testing supplies.
The US is the hardest-hit country in the world, with more than 488,000 deaths and 2.4 million confirmed infections, according to a tracker maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
While its immunisation campaign got off to a shaky start, the vaccination rate is now increasing.
More than 39 million people have received one or more dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, almost 12% of the US population of 330 million.
In positive news, Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top adviser on the pandemic, told reporters that in addition to protecting people from Covid-19, new studies from Spain and Israel showed that vaccines also appeared to reduce the viral load of people who were asymptomatically infected.
“The vaccine is important not only for the health of the individual to protect them against infection and disease, including the variants… but it also has very important implications from a public health standpoint, for interfering and diminishing the dynamics of the outbreak,” he said.