Why we are losing the COVID-19 detection game

Why we are losing the COVID-19 detection game
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America is supposed to be number one when it comes to technological prowess. Our Silicon Valley is the envy of other nations. Our politics may be broken, but we are really good at making things. We are a nation of innovation and entrepreneurship, and we pride ourselves on being ahead of the curve.

So how did a nation with a supercharged tech sector become the least prepared country to contend with a global pandemic where science and technology are critical to addressing the problem? Why are we not better at detecting the moves of the virus?

Look at the data. 

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As it turns out, not only do we have the most cases of COVID infections and deaths in the world, the United States now appears to be lagging in the critical technology to predict how the virus morphs.

What we know about this virus is that it mutates and that its variants can be deadly. The United Kingdom and parts of Africa and Asia are seeing new viral strains that pose risks and challenges that require genomic surveillance to track them.  

But according to new reporting from the GISAID Initiative, which provides data on coronavirus genomes, the United States is behind the curve. We have the most coronavirus cases in the world, yet we lag in the use of the sequencing to follow the microbiological trajectory of the virus.

Of the more than 18 million cases officially reported in the United States, just 51,212, or 0.3 percent, have been genetically analyzed. Worldwide, we rank #43 in the percentage of cases sequenced among countries with more than 100 reported infections. 

Genomic sequencing can help scientists track what could be a more transmissible and contagious variation of the virus.

What gave the British a leg up was that they invested early in science and technology in collaborative fashion. The COVID-19 UK Consortium brings researchers together to identify and understand genetic changes that affect how the virus spreads. It shares data, statistical analysis and genetic research with other countries. 

So why is America behind?

Part of the answer lies in a systemic lack of pandemic preparedness. A new report by an independent task force at the Council on Foreign Relations concludes that the United States government’s response to COVID-19 was “deeply flawed.” Across the board, we failed as a nation to respond in a coordinated fashion. “The eventual response, which attempted to balance public health concerns with economic considerations, resulted in worse outcomes across both dimensions,” the report finds. The task force suggests that the next administration make pandemic preparedness a national security priority and fund it accordingly.

But part of America’s technological failure also reflects a competitive attitude that often neglects coalitions of the willing based on the value of global sharing.  Companies pride themselves on winning without government and without partnerships with global organizations. We tend to go it alone.

In the case of genomic surveillance, we are clearly behind the eight ball. To be truly effective, the United States should re-join the World Health Organization and other international coalitions that are mobilizing public-private partnerships to advance global epidemic surveillance and forecasting strategies.

The “America First” challenge has failed. The virus is a global problem. It requires global solutions. Hopefully we are learning that being a leader requires more than having good technology. It also requires good stewardship and coalition building; a lesson we need to learn before the next crisis.

Tara D. Sonenshine is former U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.