The United States is doing so little of the genetic sequencing needed to detect new variants of the coronavirus — like the ones first identified in Great Britain and South Africa — that such mutations are probably proliferating quickly, undetected, experts said.U.S. coronavirus cases tracker and map
The lack of widespread genetic sequencing means the window is closing to find and slow the spread of variants such as the one first spotted in Britain, which appears to be much more transmissible, and those initially detected in Brazil and South Africa. All have been discovered in small numbers in the United States.
Now is when genetic sequencing — a process that maps out the genetic code of the particular virus that infected someone so it can be compared with others — would do the most good, while such variants are less prevalent in the U.S. population and action can be taken against them.
“We are in a race against time because of these mutations. And in that race, we are falling behind,” said Mara G. Aspinall, a biomedical diagnostics professor at Arizona State University.
The problem echoes the country’s catastrophic stumbles early in the pandemic, when a lack of testing allowed the virus to spread widely. Currently, only a tiny fraction of all positive coronavirus tests in the United States are forwarded for further sequencing.
Genetic sequencing is important because the coronavirus, like all viruses, mutates as it moves through people. Many changes are inconsequential and do not alter the transmissibility or severity of illness. But if scientists don’t know what strains are moving through the population, the mutations that matter may pop up undetected.
For months, scientists have been sounding alarms and trying to ramp up genetic sequencing of test samples, but the effort has been plagued by a lack of funding, political will and federal coordination, health experts and state officials said.