Omicron Variant Reiterates Need for Global Leadership and Genomic Surveillance to Contain COVID-19 Pandemic
Washington, D.C. —November 30, 2021 — On November 24, the World Health Organization (WHO) received a report from South African scientists who used genomic sequencing to detect the source of a recent surge of COVID-19 in Gauteng, South Africa. On Nov. 26, WHO designated the newly identified B.1.1.529 variant as a variant of concern (VOC) and named it Omicron. According to WHO, and ASM member experts, the variant has a large (30+) number of mutations in the spike protein, some of which appear to increase transmissibility and are of particular concern. The degree to which these mutations might confer increased potential for antibody escape is not yet known, however studies to evaluate vaccine performance against Omicron are underway.
The emergence of this new variant serves as a sobering reminder that SARS-CoV-2 remains a serious global threat, and continued evolution of the virus only strengthens our resolve to advocate for increased genomic sequencing and surveillance programs, vaccine equity and global leadership.
Genomic Sequencing and Surveillance
Genomic sequencing of pathogens enables scientists to detect disease faster, identify outbreaks sooner and protect people from emerging and evolving infectious disease threats. It informs vaccine development, helps identify and track antimicrobial resistance and foodborne illness and informs the development of diagnostics for new, existing and emerging infectious diseases. ASM is a leading advocate for greater investment in pathogen genomics and championed the Tracking COVID-19 Variants Act, which passed in the American Rescue Plan on March 11, 2021, and resulted in the allocation of $1.75 billion for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s CDC’s Advanced Molecular Detection (AMD) program. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of many microbiologists who have tirelessly built a foundation upon which SARS-CoV-2 surveillance can now expand, the increased funding will help efficiently ramp up sequencing capacity to track SARS-CoV-2 evolution; elucidate source, timing, transmission and spread of circulating variants; inform public health practices and guide vaccine rollout.
It is essential for world leadership to deploy innovative solutions based on principles of equity to ensure that vaccines are widely available to the global community. Since we do not know where the next variant will come from, it is crucial that developed countries with high percentages of vaccinated populations ensure worldwide equitable vaccine access.
To continue fighting this pandemic and to prepare for the next, world leaders must collaborate to build a global network of pathogen sequencing surveillance and diagnostic infrastructure. For genomic surveillance to reach its full potential in detecting disease threats, we must share data openly and strengthen global partnerships. Just as the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) and the United States President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) transformed clinical lab infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa, a robust global collaboration can accomplish the same goal with COVID-19 surveillance and response. ASM has been a leader in supporting microbiology laboratory capacity building globally, with programs in over 14 countries. These programs include support of COVID-19 testing and sequencing through the support of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). ASM is currently supporting 7 countries in their emergency response to COVID-19 including the detection and sequencing of COVID-19 variants.
At local levels, it is essential that we continue to practice the appropriate health and safety measures, including masking, social distancing and getting vaccinated.
We need all ASM members—from molecular virologists and clinical microbiologists, to immunologists and epidemiologists—to collect data on the new variant and determine the effects on transmissibility and virulence. ASM members are leaders in vaccine research with state of the art research being presented yearly at the Clinical Virology Sypmposium. As a way to connect early stage researchers to true life-saving impact, ASM facilitated donations to the COVAX initiative during the World Microbe Forum, directly supporting vaccinations to those who need them most.
Our experts are already working to determine how protective our current vaccines are against the omicron variant. We are keeping a close eye on future developments and are dedicated to protecting our community from this devastating virus.
The American Society for Microbiology is one of the largest professional societies dedicated to the life sciences and is composed of 30,000 scientists and health practitioners. ASM's mission is to promote and advance the microbial sciences.
ASM advances the microbial sciences through conferences, publications, certifications, educational opportunities and advocacy efforts. It enhances laboratory capacity around the globe through training and resources. It provides a network for scientists in academia, industry and clinical settings. Additionally, ASM promotes a deeper understanding of the microbial sciences to diverse audiences.