November 28, 2023

Coronavirus variants will pose a lingering threat to the United States, with the potential to spread quickly and affect vaccine effectiveness, scientists told a House panel on Wednesday.

“We need to make sure that the tools we use to detect, treat, and predict the virus are keeping up with emerging variants,” said Rep. Bill Foster, Democrat of Illinois and chair of the House subcommittee, who heard the scientists’ testimony .

Last month, the White House announced nearly $ 2 billion in funding to track coronavirus variants. The plan includes large-scale sequencing of virus genomes and studies to understand how mutations change the biology of viruses.

Funding is urgently needed, said Salim S. Abdool Karim, professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “In the months ahead, we can reasonably expect new variants to emerge that can evade vaccine-induced immunity as the virus is put under pressure through large-scale vaccinations,” he said.

The world is not doing enough to track down such variants, said Nathan Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health. “These global and national gaps in genomic surveillance severely limit our ability to detect new and emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants and should be viewed as a threat to US public health,” he said.

In addition to sequencing more genomes, scientists said they needed ways to quickly share their data. That data should contain more than just mutations carried by viruses, according to Caitlin Rivers, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Dr. Rivers said scientists also need a way to learn about people’s health after they become infected with variants.

“We need to be able to see how the variant behaves in individuals and populations,” said Dr. Rivers.

For example, when New York researchers linked information about B.1.526, a variant common in the city, to medical records, they found that it did not make people with Covid-19 unusually ill.

By monitoring variants, says Dr. Rivers, researchers could give early warning of threats to vaccine protection. Vaccine developers could then create formulations that are tailored to the variants.

“We must not be unprepared again,” warned Dr. Rivers.