WHO wants to help boost global genomic surveillance

31 Mar 2022

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A new WHO strategy aims to reduce global health inequity by helping some countries develop their own genomic surveillance capacity.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has published a 10-year strategy to help countries boost the genomic surveillance of pathogens, after data shows that one in three countries do not have the capacity to use this critical tool.

Genomic surveillance is the process of monitoring pathogens – that lead to diseases such as cholera, Ebola and Covid-19 – and analysing their genetic similarities and differences. This helps researchers and public health officials better understand the evolution of the infectious diseases, alert the public and develop vaccines.

It is through genomic sequencing that bodies such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other national health agencies designate variants of ‘interest’ or ‘concern’ – as we have seen with Covid-19.

While the WHO’s new strategy is not specific to a single pathogen or disease threat, its publication yesterday (30 March) comes at a crucial juncture during the Covid-19 pandemic.

WHO data shows that only 54pc of countries in the world had genomic surveillance capacity before the pandemic. This figure now stands at 68pc as of January 2022 because of major national investments necessitated by the pandemic across the world.

There was also an increase in sequencing data available publicly, with 43pc more countries publishing data in January 2022 than in the same period a year before.

Reduce global health inequity

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said that the complexity of genomic surveillance and sustaining capacities in different settings, including workforce needs, means that “most countries cannot develop these capabilities on their own”.

“The global strategy helps keep our eyes on the horizon and provides a unifying framework for action. WHO looks forward to working with countries and partners in this important and highly dynamic field,” he said in a statement announcing the strategy. “We will do best if we work together.”

One of the main aims of the strategy is reduce global health inequity by helping countries that are lagging in their genomics surveillance capacity to come up to speed and prepare for any future outbreaks of novel pathogens or variants of existing ones.

Without genomic surveillance, countries will have to depend on other health agencies to share information on pathogens and variants, which may slow down or inhibit the process of identifying risks, issuing public health advice and developing vaccines.

Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, said that genomic surveillance is “critical for stronger pandemic and epidemic preparedness and response” around the world.

“This pandemic has laid bare the fact that we live in an interconnected world and that we are only as strong as our weakest link. Improving global disease surveillance means improving local disease surveillance,” he said. “That is where we need to act, and this strategy will provide us with the foundation.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic