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WHO says work on Covid variants must be prioritised

Vital genome sequencing of coronavirus reliant on ‘handful’ of countries, says UN agency

The World Health Organization is calling on researchers to prioritise work on rapidly spreading variants of the Covid-19 virus, especially vital sequencing that is currently limited to a small number of nations.

Concern over variants is growing. The UK is struggling to control a more easily spread form of Covid-19, while variants are also causing problems in South Africa and Brazil.

Genetic sequencing of the virus is vital to track the mutations causing variation, but it is still not being conducted widely enough, a virtual conference of more than 1,750 experts from 124 countries hosted by the WHO on 12 January was warned.

“So far, an astounding 350,000 sequences have been publicly shared, but most come from just a handful of countries,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19. “Improving the geographic coverage of sequencing is critical for the world to have eyes and ears on changes to the virus.”

Researchers at the meeting agreed that work on new variants must be integrated into the wider research programme, while better coordination between disciplines and increased sequencing capacity were also identified as priorities.

“Our collective goal is to get ahead of the game and have a global mechanism to quickly identify and study variants of concern and understand their implications for disease control efforts,” said Ana Maria Henao Restrepo, head of the WHO’s R&D Blueprint, a plan for the “rapid activation” of research during epidemics.