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How the Rockefeller Foundation Plans to Track COVID-19 Variants and Prevent Future Pandemics

Why Global Citizens Should Care 
COVID-19 variants make the need for swift and efficient vaccine rollouts all the more vital as the United States works to tackle the pandemic. A coordinated national strategy to track and share information on variants can prevent thousands of deaths and stop the pandemic. Join us by taking action here.

As the US is lagging behind in conducting surveillance on the spread of COVID-19, the Rockefeller Foundation has released an action plan to create a national surveillance system to track coronavirus variants before they spread too widely. 

Released on Monday, “Accelerating National Genomic Surveillance” is the work of scientists, lab administrators, public health officials, representatives from the private sector, and entrepreneurs who gathered in February to develop a plan to tackle the country’s slow response to tracking variants.

It outlines a six-part strategy to enable rapid detection and control of emerging COVID-19 variants, such as by creating a viral defense system and connecting national public health systems to link data.

The plan also includes an implementation framework that identifies barriers to creating a national surveillance system. Some of the solutions include improving communication and coordination between regional data centers and creating new software tools for analyzing genomic data.

“One secret weapon has helped beat every disease outbreak over the last century,” the report says. “It is not masks or social distancing, lockdowns, or even vaccines. It is data. Data tells us which masks work, how far to socially distance, whether lockdowns are necessary or even working, and who is immune.”

As COVID-19 continues to spread, it’s given the opportunity to produce variants that may affect the efficacy of vaccines and treatments in the future. Identifying these variants and sharing information on them quickly and efficiently is essential to controlling the pandemic and saving lives around the world.

Almost 30 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been identified in the US. The COVID-19 variants first seen in South Africa and the United Kingdom were identified through extensive surveillance and genomic mapping within those countries, according to Dr. Jonathan Quick, the managing director for response, preparedness, and prevention at the Rockefeller Foundation. Experts say the US must adopt similar measures to make informed decisions about adapting treatments and national policies to control the pandemic.

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The Rockefeller Foundation’s new action plan is the organization’s first step in creating a broad, data-driven platform to share information on virus outbreaks. It can apply lessons learned from the COVID-19 data collected in the US to help develop a pandemic prevention institute, which aims to create a response system for all nations to use to prevent future pandemics.

“Throughout this pandemic, the US has been flying blind without adequate testing and genomic surveillance,” said Dr. Rick Bright, the Rockefeller Foundation’s new senior vice president of pandemic prevention and response. “To end the pandemic and avoid further economic and societal devastation, it is essential that we accelerate and coordinate our efforts to rapidly identify, track, and halt this virus before more damage is done.”