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New Report: Staying Ahead of the Variants: Policy Recommendations to Identify and Manage Current and Future Variants of Concern

Center News


February 16, 2021 – The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security released a new report on the status of SARS-CoV-2 surveillance, sequencing, and variant characterization and actions the U.S. government should take to increase capacity to respond to new virus variants.

The 3 new concerning variants of SARS-CoV-2 could make the virus spread more easily or make therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19 less effective. And as the pandemic unfolds, more variants will emerge and spread.

“Although viral mutation is inevitable, it is possible to anticipate, manage and mitigate the threat to our collective public health,” writes Caitlin Rivers, PhD, Senior Scholar at the Center, and the co-authors of the report, Staying Ahead of the Variants: Policy Recommendations to Identify and Manage Current and Future Variants of Concern. “The key to staying ahead of a rapidly evolving virus is to maintain a continuous, systematic genomic surveillance and functional characterization capability that is able to rapidly detect and evaluate new variants of concern.”

Funding for increased genomic surveillance is expected in the next Congressional supplemental, among other significant investments in SARS-CoV-2 research. The report authors write that there are key efforts that should be funded with this budget allocation to expand capacity and improve surveillance systems. Investments to build genomic surveillance infrastructure for the COVID-19 response will not only help us manage the pandemic now but will also improve response of other pathogens in the future.

The report makes 4 priority recommendations:

  1. Maintain policies that slow transmission: The best way to prevent emergence of new variants will be to continue the public health measures that reduce transmission. This includes mask mandates, social distancing requirements, and limiting gatherings.
  2. Prioritize contact tracing and case investigation for data collection: Tracing data will allow public health officials to observe how the new variant behaves compared to previously circulating versions.
  3. Develop a Genomic Surveillance Strategy: To guide the public health response, maximize resources, and ensure an equitable distribution of benefits, the US Department of Health and Human Services should develop a national strategy for genomic surveillance to implement and direct a robust SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance program, drawing on resources and expertise from across the US government.
  4. Improve coordination for genomic surveillance and characterization: Clear leadership and coordination will be necessary to create a successful genomic surveillance and characterization network to inform public health policies for the variants of concern.

“Genomic surveillance is a powerful tool for outbreak response. Not only will it provide vital information to improve response to COVID-19 right now, but investing in building a genomic surveillance infrastructure now will also improve response to outbreaks in the future,” according to Lane Warmbrod, MS, MPH, a senior analyst at the Center and a co-author of the report.

Read the new report.