Delays in Genetic Sequencing Slow US
COVID Battle

Ralph Ellis

January 12, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The United States is very slow in collecting and analyzing genetic sequences from COVID-19 patients, putting it at a disadvantage in battling new virus variants.

CNN reported that it takes 85 days for a sample to be collected from a patient's nose, analyzed and posted on the independent data sharing initiative GISAID, according to the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The U.S. ranks 61st in speed of posting these genetic sequences on GISAID, behind less affluent nations such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Suriname, CNN said.

"It's pathetic," Dr. Peter Hotez, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN. "By the time you wait (85) days, a sequence can go from being a rare variant to being half of the circulating virus in a population."

CNN said the United States has posted samples from nearly 70,000 COVID patients, second in number only to the United Kingdom with 150,000. The UK can process the genetic sequences in 24 days, CNN said. The U.S. genetic sequences are submitted to GISAID from the CDC, universities, private companies and health departments.

Speeding up the process is crucial as nations find new coronavirus variants in the population, health experts say.

"We need to have this data much more quickly so we can see what's going on," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota and a member of President-elect Joe Biden's COVID policy transition team.

As new variants emerge, the need for faster sequencing is even more important.

Mike Ryan, MD, executive director of the World Health Organization's emergencies program, used a sports analogy to describe the threat of new variants, saying they're like adding a substitution in the second half of a football game. 

"It adds to the challenge you face," he said Monday at a news conference, "because the opposition is bringing on some new players to the field. It doesn't change the rules of the game. It doesn't change what we need to do to win. It just changes the strength of the opponent. And in that sense, we have to take from that that we just need to redouble our efforts."


CNN. "Much of US data to catch newest coronavirus variants is several months old"