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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.

Many public health experts see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the premier disease detection agency not just for the United States but for the entire planet.

Yet when it comes to employing the fastest and most precise method of spotting outbreaks of illness, the CDC is no longer at the cutting edge — and won’t be for years. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden along with public health and provider groups want to turn that around by investing in a sophisticated technology called “advanced molecular detection” that determines the genetic map of the viruses, bacteria and parasites that cause disease.

The effort began paying off early this year. Appropriators for the first time in several years decided to rewrite Labor-HHS-Education spending provisions. In doing so, they included $30 million for the AMD technology in the omnibus spending measure funding the government through the end of fiscal 2014.

But Frieden must still persuade lawmakers to continue such annual funding for the five-year program for four more years. And he’ll be doing it even as he seeks additional funds for other programs. The Atlanta-based CDC director was in Washington last week to help present the administration’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal.

Advocates make the case that without action to boost U.S. technology to combat dangerous diseases, there will be more patients to treat who didn’t need to get sick, more lives needlessly lost and health spending that didn’t have to occur. It also means a loss of income to families and businesses that could have been avoided.

And the lag in technology is coming at a bad time, Frieden said during an interview — just as a retreat is under way in the great medical advances against infectious disease.

Deadly bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics with no quick way to know how widely that is occurring, Frieden said. That includes a strain called “the nightmare bacteria,” he said.

It’s a bacteria that’s resistant to just about all antibiotics and spreads diseases not only among the same organisms but jumps from species to species, said Frieden. Antibiotic resistance “threatens to take routine infections and make them untreatable,” he warned.

Advanced molecular detection is seen as key. As part of President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal, Frieden wants to widen the impact of the technology and to improve protection against antibiotic resistance and other disease outbreaks in a variety of other ways through a new “global health security” initiative.

The sums involved aren’t major — and the threats they address are. But in an era of competing budget demands and tight caps on discretionary spending, there’s no certainty he’ll get the money.

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