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White House funnels $1.7 billion to help track and fight coronavirus variants

The effort comes after months of public health experts sounding the alarm about the US’s insufficient efforts to identify and track the prevalence of coronavirus variants, which are now sweeping the country and causing surges in cases in many states. While those efforts have improved, experts say the US still does not have enough information about the spread of those variants.
States, territories and major US cities will receive a first tranche of $240 million next month as part of a $1 billion investment to improve genomic sequencing, which allows labs to identify coronavirus variants and track the prevalence of those variants. The funding was approved by Congress as part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that President Joe Biden signed into law last month.

“When we arrived, the US was sequencing only a small fragment of what other countries were. This hampered our ability to find and react to these variants,” said Andy Slavitt, White House senior adviser for Covid Response, during a news briefing from the White House’s Covid-19 response team. He acknowledged that the US still needs “more capacity to track and identify” mutations.

The Biden administration will also spend $400 million to stand up Centers of Excellence in Genomic Epidemiology and fund research to improve genomic surveillance testing, among other things. Another $300 million will help create a National Bioinformatics Infrastructure, which the White House said will create “a unified system for sharing and analyzing sequence data” to help public health experts quickly access information about the spread and mutation of pathogens.

“At this critical juncture in the pandemic, these new resources will help ensure states and the CDC have the support they need to fight back against dangerous variants and slow the spread of the virus,” White House coronavirus testing coordinator Carole Johnson said in a statement.

The funding follows a $200 million investment from the Biden administration in February, which was aimed at boosting genomic sequencing.

When officials dedicated that $200 million to improving sequencing, they aimed to increase the number of genomes being sequenced from 8,000 per week to 29,000 per week. But as they prepare to surge more funding to this effort starting in May, administration officials told CNN that they have not yet reached that goal. The officials declined to put a specific number on what their new goal is with the $1 billion investment, but told CNN sequencing is “a priority for us and why we are trying to act quickly here.”

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said last week that the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, is now the most common strain of the coronavirus circulating in the US, helping to fuel a surge of cases in several states, including hard-hit Michigan. Other concerning variants have emerged in South Africa, New York City and California. While the vaccines have been shown to be effective against the B.1.1.7 variants, public health experts are on guard for the emergence of other variants that might make vaccines less effective.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.

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