Discussion: The latest on coronavirus variants and rapid testing

The World
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The US is setting up a $1.7 billion national network to identify and track worrisome coronavirus mutations whose spread could trigger another pandemic wave, the Biden administration announced recently.

White House officials unveiled a strategy that features three components: A funding boost for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments to ramp up coronavirus gene-mapping; the creation of six “centers of excellence” partnerships with universities to conduct research and develop technologies for gene-based surveillance of pathogens, and building a data system to better share and analyze information on emerging disease threats, so knowledge can be turned into action.

“Even as we accelerate our efforts to get shots into arms, more dangerous variants are growing, causing increases in cases in people without immunity,” White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt told reporters. That “requires us to intensify our efforts to quickly test for and find the genetic sequence of the virus as it spreads.”

Related discussion: Understanding and tracking 'long COVID'

The Biden administration's move comes as a variant known as B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, has become the predominant strain in the US. Vaccines are effective against B.1.1.7, but other mutations circulating around the globe have shown resistance to currently available vaccines. Of particular concern are two variants — P.1, first detected in travelers from Brazil, and B.1.351, identified in South Africa. The reason scientists are watching those variants is that they have shown some level of resistance to antibodies, defensive proteins produced by the human body in response to vaccines or a previous infection.

Related discussion: Coronavirus vaccine acceptance and public attitudes

As the newer variants spread, scientists are grappling with the implications. How might continuing vaccination rollouts, as well as the anticipated availability of an increasing number of over-the-counter at-home tests, factor into controlling further spread? And what is the latest on COVID-19 vaccine development and access?

As part of The World's regular series of conversations on the pandemic, reporter Elana Gordon moderated a discussion with Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina.

This conversation is presented with the Forum at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The AP contributed to this post.