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The United States needs to boost efforts to sequence coronavirus samples taken from COVID-19 patients, says Rick Bright, leader of a new Rockefeller Foundation program on pandemic prevention.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

Health official ousted by Trump to lead private coronavirus tracking effort

Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

Immunologist Rick Bright, who was removed as director of the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) in April 2020 by the Trump administration after he pushed back against investing in the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, will lead a new private effort to improve defenses against pandemics, both present and future. The Rockefeller Foundation today announced Bright will be its senior vice president for pandemic prevention and response, leading efforts “to avert future pandemics by identifying and responding to the earliest alerts of a disease outbreak and stopping it in the first 100 days.”

The foundation also released a report, produced by a group of experts Bright helped convene last month, that urges the United States to quickly ramp up its surveillance of the coronavirus. The country is sequencing fewer than 1% of cases, which makes it difficult to identify versions such as the fast-spreading U.K. B.1.1.7 variant that is raising concerns about the efficacy of vaccines.

In an action plan and accompanying framework released today, the foundation lays out six points, which include creating “sentinel sites” to detect variants, analyzing diverse samples, developing data standards and software tools, studying variant biology, and increasing funding.

The Rockefeller Foundation says implementing the action plan will be part of a $1 billion commitment it made in October 2020 to developing a pandemic prevention system. “Throughout this pandemic, the United States has been flying blind without adequate testing and genomic surveillance,” Bright said.

Those efforts are about to get a boost, with Congress and the White House poised to approve $1.75 billion for virus sequencing in the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill now moving through Congress. Those funds will come on top of $200 million already tagged for genomic surveillance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.