More than 70 US labs join CDC initiative to study coronavirus genome

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday announced that at least 75 public health, academic and commercial institutions are coming together to increase research on the spread of coronavirus throughout the country.

The initiative, known as Sequencing for Public Health Emergency Response, Epidemiology and Surveillance, or SPHERES, will study the coronavirus’s genome throughout the United States and release the information they discover into the public domain.

As the virus replicates and spreads throughout the U.S., its genetic code will pick up tiny mutations, The New York Times reported. Labs involved in the initiative will trace the patterns of the mutations and study how the virus is evolving amid the ongoing pandemic. Those results can help experts assess the effectiveness of potential treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

The research will also allow experts to “gain important insights to support contact tracing,” the CDC said on its website about the initiative. Contact tracing involves interviewing infected people to find out who they have been in contact with for the prior 14 days and urging them to self-isolate.

The CDC predicted that the initiative will also allow sequencing to be coordinated at the state and local level among laboratories, improve knowledge-sharing between laboratories and “better align sequencing requirements and resource needs with different sources of funding, technology, expertise, and other means of support.”

Pavitra Roychoudhury, a scientist with the University of Washington’s virology department and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told the Times that she will help coordinate her institutions’ work with the initiative.

She said the project, which researchers started in early April prior to its public announcement, has already “made a tangible impact in the number of sequences we’re able to deposit and make publicly available on a daily basis,” and that labs have been “sharing what we’ve learned.”

Gene sequences have also been shared to help track influenza, and experts have used it to better understand Ebola outbreaks in several African nations, according to The New York Times.

Other countries have also announced sequencing efforts around the world. The U.K. launched a sequencing consortium over a month ago that has received 20 million pounds, or approximately $25 million, in funding. Canada has also launched a similar project, backing it with 40 million Canadian dollars in federal funding.

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