Nov. 27, 2015 SIGN IN | REGISTER

CDC Plans to Map DNA of Disease-Causing Viruses

Courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
A tiny gene sequencing chip can help to identify the DNA of a virus in just three hours, compared with what previously took months.

The CDC isn’t alone in making the pitch. A letter last year from 33 patient, provider and disease groups urged funding to replace “obsolete” technology, citing outbreaks such as the one of fungal meningitis from contaminated steroids that killed some 50 people and an outbreak of resistant bacteria at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center that killed seven.

“We’ve been concerned for a number of years that CDC is falling behind,” said Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. He cited investments 10 to 15 years ago in a technology known as PCR and in the PulseNet food illness surveillance network as ones that kept the agency then at the cutting edge of disease detection, but no longer.

It isn’t so much that the CDC is behind other nations as it is that the technology isn’t being used when dangerous new threats are emerging, said Becker.

“It’s more that the microbes are ahead of us,” agreed Frieden. “The microbes are evolving really quickly.”

But Frieden acknowledged a “painful” story. “During the [2010] cholera outbreak in Haiti we were able to sequence the genome of the cholera bacillus, but we couldn’t interpret it. So we had to send it to Canada to have it interpreted,” he said. “You know, I got nothin’ against Canada, but I never ever want to have to send something elsewhere to have it interpreted. They were ahead of us with bioinformatics.”

But with funding in hand at least for the first year, Frieden expresses confidence the United States will be back at the cutting edge within five years with continued bipartisan support.

Becker said the change “can’t come soon enough” but warns it won’t be easy and that grants are needed to develop the necessary workforce expertise: “If you don’t have the workforce you’re always going to be behind.”

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