Genomic surveillance of pathogens

05 April 2022

Article: 56/1308

On 30 March 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the publication of a ten-year strategy aimed at strengthening and scaling-up genomic surveillance around the world. While the strategy is not specific to a single pathogen or disease threat, it will provide a high-level unifying framework to leverage existing capacities, address barriers and strengthen the use of genomic surveillance worldwide.

Genomic surveillance is the process of constantly monitoring pathogens and analysing their genetic similarities and differences, and helps researchers, epidemiologists and public health officials monitor the evolution of infectious diseases agents, alert on the spread of pathogens, and develop counter measures, such as vaccines. Various public health programmes, from Ebola to cholera, use genomic surveillance to understand a pathogen at its molecular level, but COVID-19 has highlighted the challenges of bringing genomics to scale.

Data collected by the WHO show that in March 2021, 54% of countries had this capacity, and by January 2022, thanks to the major investments made during the COVID-19 pandemic, that number had increased to 68%. Even greater gains were made in the public sharing of sequence data, as by January 2022, 43% more countries published their sequence data compared to the year before.

The WHO report that, despite this fast progress, much remains to be done. Any new technology comes with the risk of increasing inequity, which is one of the gaps this strategy targets. The complexities of genomics and the challenges of sustaining capacities in different settings, including workforce needs, means that most countries cannot develop these capabilities on their own. It is hoped the global strategy will provide a unifying framework for action, and the WHO will work with countries and other partners with this.

Source: WHO, 30 March 2022