The U.S. is doing genome sequencing tests on 3,000 samples per week, and the CDC hopes to increase that to about 6,500 samples per week.
“It’s important that we monitor the virus and that we be able to pick up these trends that have implications for public health and clinical medicine,” Gregory Armstrong, MD, director of the CDC’s Office of Advanced Molecular Detection, told CNN on Sunday.
Scientists often sequence the genetic maps of viruses to find mutations that could affect how severe a virus is and how easily it can spread. Last month, British scientists found a new coronavirus variant that seems to spread more easily but not cause a more severe disease. It’s now been found in at least 37 countries and four U.S. states, CNN reported.
To double the number of tests in the U.S., the CDC sent $15 million to state health labs in December and signed contracts with two private labs -- LabCorp and Illumina -- to do genome sequencing, Armstrong said. During the pandemic, the U.S. has submitted about 57,000 genomic sequences to GISAID, an international database.
Also this week, World Health Organization officials expect to see lab results that may determine whether the new variant in the U.K. will hinder COVID-19 vaccines. Scientists in the United Kingdom and other countries are testing blood samples from vaccine recipients to see if their antibodies protect against the new variant, Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the WHO’s technical lead for the coronavirus response, told CNN.
COVID-19 vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna are also testing their vaccines against different variants in their labs. Elsewhere, scientists are testing how well vaccines work against a variant found in South Africa, Van Kerkhove said.
The U.K. strain, known as B.1.1.7, has been detected in California, Colorado, Florida, and New York, according to USA Today. The first case was identified in Colorado at the end of December, and the first case in New York was announced on Monday.
“Because the variants spread more rapidly, they could lead to more cases and put even more strain on our heavily burdened health care systems,” Henry Walke, MD, the incident manager for the CDC’s COVID-19 response, told the newspaper.
“We need to be even more vigilant in our prevention measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.”