WHO Beefs up Worldwide Genomic Surveillance to Prevent Pandemics

April 5, 2022 - 4 minutes

The World Health Organization has released a 10-year plan to monitor the genetic make-up of pathogens across the globe. The strategy highlights how far genomics has come during the Covid-19 pandemic and how far there is to go.  

The past two years have seen unprecedented global collaboration as researchers raced to better understand the epidemiology, transmissibility, and virulence of the coronavirus behind Covid-19. Detecting, assessing, and monitoring variants with the help of genomics has become essential for understanding how the virus is changing in addition to the impact of such changes on its threat to humans.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is keen to drive home the lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic. Last week, the organization unveiled a strategy to improve the use of genomics in the tracking of potential pandemic pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other organisms.

According to WHO statistics, 68% of WHO member states had the capacity to sequence pathogen genomes by January 2022, up from 54% in March last year. Public sharing of information improved even further by January 2022, with 43% more countries publishing their sequence data than in January 2021.

The WHO’s strategy will build on the recent progress by expanding worldwide access to surveillance tools such as sequencing facilities, training the workforce to make use of such tools, streamlining the sharing of data, and keeping the system alert for future pandemics. To achieve these aims, the WHO plans to liaise with policymakers and public health bodies to raise awareness of genomics and establish standards in the collection and sharing of biological data.

By having global networks of pathogen surveillance, coupled with scientific collaboration, we can facilitate the identification and tracking of dangerous pathogens,” said Blanca Perez-Sepulveda, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Institute of Infection, Veterinary, and Ecological Sciences at the University of Liverpool, UK, who wasn’t involved in the WHO’s pathogen surveillance strategy.

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Genomic surveillance is an enormous asset to public health, allowing the correct implementation of strategies for control and prevention of pathogens with potential for global spread, before becoming pandemic.”

Perez-Sepulveda is a member of a global academic collaboration democratizing large-scale bacterial genomics in low-income countries in Africa and Latin America. To aid in the fight against bacterial pathogens around the world, Perez-Sepulveda’s team samples and shares genetic data from enteric bacteria through an online database.

Other genomic databases for pathogens have also existed for years, with the International Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID) first set up in 2006 to provide public access to sequences from deadly bird flu viruses such as H5N1.

The Covid-19 pandemic proved a watershed moment as major investments swelled the ability of many countries to carry out genetic surveillance of pathogens. In Europe for example, barely a third of countries reached Covid-19 variant sequencing targets recommended by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in March 2021. In September 2021, the ECDC responded by pumping €77M into 24 member states to boost their progress in tracking Covid-19 variants.

Nonetheless, the WHO’s latest strategy acknowledged the high technical and financial costs of genomic surveillance, particularly in settings with limited resources. Even in some wealthy European nations like the UK, governments are scaling back costly Covid-19 surveillance programs, saying that high vaccination rates provide sufficient protection for the population.

Other obstacles on the path to expanding access to genomics include challenges in the scale, geographic coverage, and timeliness of data. Additionally, the WHO found that worldwide prioritization of existing genomic surveillance capabilities for Covid-19 has diverted resources away from the surveillance for other disease threats.

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In spite of the barriers, Perez-Sepulveda maintained that genome sequencing was a very powerful tool for the surveillance of dangerous organisms.

Compared to other methods, such as molecular methods, genome sequencing can be a lot faster and provides great resolution,” she said. “The caveat is access to sequencing technology at a global level, particularly in regions associated with the greatest burden of infectious disease.

Cover image via Elena Resko

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