White House turns its attention to COVID-19 variants

Credit: NIAID

Today, the US government announced a new initiative in the next phase of fighting the pandemic: investing $1.7 billion in genomic sequencing efforts that will help identify COVID-19 variants.

"Our ability to spot variants as they emerge and spread is vital, particularly as we aim to get ahead of dangerous variants before they emerge, as they are in the Midwest right now," Andy Slavitt, a senior White House pandemic adviser, said today during a COVID-19 briefing.

Slavitt said vaccination is still the main tool to end the pandemic, and he encouraged all Americans to get the vaccine beginning Monday, when more states will make those 16 and older eligible.

But genetic sequencing will enable the country to quickly identify new variants of the virus, more accurately locate hot spots of variant activity, and aid in the development of booster vaccines, which will target circulating variants. 

"Despite having world-class researchers and dedicated state and local public health leaders, when we arrived, the US was sequencing only a small fragment of what other countries were," Slavitt said. "This hampered our ability to find and react to these new variants.”

Laboratories will receive $1 billion to strengthen sequencing programs, $400 million will go to the Centers of Excellence in Genomic Epidemiology, and $300 million will go to developing a national bioinformatics infrastructure.

All of the money is coming from the American Rescue Plan, Slavitt said. 

CDC says case counts, deaths on the rise 

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, said during the briefing that the new 7-day average of daily cases is 69,000. Just 4 weeks ago, that number was 53,000.

More troubling, she said, was that today marked the third day in a row of increasing death counts. 

The country reported 74,289 new COVID-19 cases yesterdayand 887 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. In total, the nation has confirmed 31,556,889 cases, including 565,096 fatalities. 

According to the Washington Post, 38 states have reported an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the past week, with a national total of more than 47,000. 

The Upper Midwest, from Minnesota to Pennsylvania, is seeing the most dramatic spike in virus activity. 

Michigan remains the biggest hot spot in the country, as it has been for the last 4 weeks. Michigan's largest hospital system said it has more than 800 patients being treated for COVID-19, up from 500 2 weeks ago. Beaumont Health's medical director of infection prevention told the Associated Press it's "just like a runaway train right now." 

Beaumont Health said its eight hospitals had just 128 COVID-19 patients at the end of February. Only 25% of Michigan's population is vaccinated, and state officials warn that the benefits of vaccination won't be seen for weeks. 

Pfizer CEO says 3rd dose likely needed

Albert Bourla, chief executive officer of Pfizer, said yesterday a third dose of the company's mRNA vaccine, the first approved for use in the United States, will likely be needed within a year. Bourla also said that COVID-19 vaccines may become an annual event, similar to the seasonal flu vaccine. 

So far, Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson have data showing 6 months of protection against the virus. 

Today, Walensky said the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), the independent group of vaccine experts that advises the CDC, will meet next Apr 23 to discuss how to move forward with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is on pause after being tied to six cases of blood clots, one deadly.

Johnson & Johnson privately reached out to other COVID-19 vaccine makers to ask them to join an effort to study the risks of blood clots and speak with one voice about safety, but Pfizer and Moderna declined, the Wall Street Journal reports. Astra Zeneca, whose coronavirus vaccine has also been tied to rare clotting events in Europe, agreed to study the phenomenon.

Both Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are adenovirus-based vaccines. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA-based and have not been connected to an increased risk of blood clots. 

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