National surveillance program needed to track COVID-19 variant, scientists say

U.S. health officials are effectively flying blind when it comes to understanding the new COVID-19 variant's spread in the U.S. and how to contain it, as the nation lacks a wide-scale surveillance program to identify and track genetic variations of the novel coronavirus, scientists told The New York Times.

While roughly 1.4 million people test positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. each week, researchers in academic, state and commercial settings are only performing genetic sequencing on less than 3,000 samples weekly, according to the Times.

Implementing a national surveillance program for COVID-19 variants would help U.S. health officials understand how widespread the virus is in the country and identify emerging hot spots to contain, scientists said.

"This has to be a system that is implemented on a national level," Charles Chiu, MD, PhD, an infectious disease researcher at the University of California San Francisco, whose team identified some of the first variant cases in the state, told the Times. "Without that kind of dedicated support, it's simply not going to get done.”

At present, the  COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7, which was first found in the United Kingdom, has been detected in five U.S. states: Georgia, New York, California, Florida and Colorado. Experts believe the U.K. variant is spread more easily, which could put extra stress on U.S. hospitals already overburdened with the current COVID-19 surge, the Times reported.

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