SWITZERLAND –The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a 10-year strategy to assist countries in increasing genomic surveillance of pathogens, after data revealed that one in every three countries lacks the capacity to use this critical tool.

The process of monitoring pathogens that cause diseases such as cholera, Ebola, and Covid-19 and analyzing their genetic similarities and differences is known as genomic surveillance.

This allows researchers and public health officials to better understand how infectious diseases evolve, alert the public, and develop vaccines.

As we have seen with Covid-19, bodies such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other national health agencies designate variants of ‘interest’ or ‘concern’ through genomic sequencing.

While the WHO’s new strategy does not target a specific pathogen or disease threat, its release on 30th March comes at a critical juncture in the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to WHO data, only 54% of the world’s countries had genomic surveillance capacity prior to the pandemic.

Because of major national investments necessitated by the pandemic around the world, this figure has now risen to 68% as of January 2022.

There was also an increase in publicly available sequencing data, with 43% more countries publishing data in January 2022 than in the same period the previous year.

Reduce global health inequity

One of the strategy’s main goals is to reduce global health inequity by assisting countries that are lagging in their genomics surveillance capacity to catch up and prepare for future outbreaks of novel pathogens or variants of existing pathogens.

Without genomic surveillance, countries will be forced to rely on other health agencies to share information on pathogens and variants, potentially slowing or impeding the process of identifying risks, issuing public health advice, and developing vaccines.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said that the complexity of genomic surveillance and sustaining capacities in different settings, including workforce needs, means that “most countries cannot develop these capabilities on their own”.

The global strategy helps keep our eyes on the horizon and provides a unifying framework for action. WHO looks forward to working with countries and partners in this important and highly dynamic field,” he said in a statement announcing the strategy. “We will do best if we work together.”

According to Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, genomic surveillance is “critical for stronger pandemic and epidemic preparedness and response” worldwide.

This pandemic has laid bare the fact that we live in an interconnected world and that we are only as strong as our weakest link. Improving global disease surveillance means improving local disease surveillance,” he said. “That is where we need to act, and this strategy will provide us with the foundation.”

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