Government rushes virus gene-mapping as mutations spread

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FILE - In this Dec. 8, 2020 file photo, Rochelle Walensky, speaks during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. The U.S. is scrambling to expand DNA mapping of coronavirus samples to identify potentially deadlier mutations starting to spread around the country.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. is scrambling to expand DNA mapping of coronavirus samples taken from patients to identify potentially deadlier mutations that are starting to spread around the country.

On Wednesday, the White House announced a scaled up push by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and by a U.S. Army biodefense institute. But the more significant action is on Capitol Hill, where a House bill headed for floor debate would provide $1.75 billion for genomic sequencing.

“I don’t think this is going to be a light switch; I think its going to be a dial,” CDC head Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters, as she described the effort.

The U.S. now maps only the genetic makeup of a minuscule fraction of positive virus samples, a situation some experts liken to flying blind. It means the true domestic spread of problematic mutations first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa remains a matter of guesswork.

Such ignorance could prove costly. One worry is that more transmissible forms such as the UK variant could move faster than the nation's ability to get the vaccine into Americans' arms.

“You've got a small number of academic and public health labs that have been basically doing the genomic surveillance,” said David O'Connor, an AIDS researcher at the University of Wisconsin. “But there is no national coherence to the strategy.”

The CDC is trying to shepherd those efforts and align them with the government's own expanded commitment. Officials said Wednesday the administration will spend $200 million for the CDC to increase genomic sequencing to about 25,000 samples a week, or triple the current level.

On a parallel track, a U.S. Army biodefense institute will increase coronavirus gene mapping to 10,000 samples a week by the end of the month, up from about 4,000.