Many people are familiar with the field of genomics as a tool for ancestry mapping to trace relatives or to identify genetic risk factors for diseases. However, genomics has also been widely applied to tracking infectious diseases by sequencing the genomes of bacteria, parasites, and viruses. Genomic surveillance is the process of constantly monitoring pathogens and analyzing their genetic similarities and differences.
It helps researchers, epidemiologists, and public health officials to:
- Monitor diseases
- Control pathogens
- Tailor interventions and recommendations for the public
- Develop countermeasures, like vaccines
- Stamp out disease
One in three countries does not have the capacity to use this critical tool. WHO is releasing a strategy to strengthen and scale up genomic surveillance around the world.
Various public health programs from ebola to cholera – use genomic Surveillance to understand a pathogen at its molecular level but covid-19 has highlighted the challenges of bringing genomics to scale. Historically, few countries have routinely done genomic surveillance in-country, a technology considered complicated and expensive. But COVID-19 changed that. Genomic surveillance has been critical in the COVID-19 response, from the identification of a novel coronavirus to the development of the first diagnostic tests and vaccines to the tracking and identification of new variants.
WHO Tweeted About How Genomic Surveillance Can Help During A Pandemic:
Monitoring and analyzing the genetic make-up of pathogens with pandemic and epidemic potential can help us understand how they behave and evolve. This allows us to develop appropriate tools to control the disease, such as:
- Tracking and identification of new variants
- Public health and social measures, like mask and handwashing
The Global genomic surveillance strategy for pathogens with pandemic and epidemic potential 2022–2032 is not specific to a single pathogen or disease threat. It provides a high-level unifying framework to leverage existing capacities, address barriers and strengthen the use of genomic surveillance worldwide.
Data collected by WHO show that in March 2021, 54% of countries had this capacity. By January 2022, thanks to the major investments made during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number had increased to 68%. Even greater gains were made in the public sharing of sequence data: in January 2022, 43% more countries published their sequence data compared to a year before. Despite this fast progress, much remains to be done. Any new technology comes with the risk of increasing inequity, which is one of the gaps this strategy targets.
Genomic surveillance is critical for stronger pandemic and epidemic preparedness and response.