WASHINGTON — The Biden administration plans to invest $1.6 billion toward improving COVID-19 testing and genomic sequencing of the coronavirus while it waits for lawmakers to approve more funds through the congressional COVID-19 relief package.
The new investments are designed to expand COVID-19 testing in schools and underserved communities, ramp up domestic manufacturing of testing supplies and raw materials to address shortages and rapidly increase genomic sequencing of the virus to better track COVID-19 variants and mutations, national testing coordinator Carole Johnson told reporters Wednesday. Public health officials said the increase in testing would help Americans safely return to work and school, and the investment in variant tracking could help prevent the spread of mutations.
“To be clear, these resources are a significant help in the short term but they are far from what’s necessary to meet the needs for community testing across the country. They are merely a bridge until Congress passes the American Rescue Plan,” Johnson said, referring to Biden’s proposal.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package includes $49 billion for COVID-19 testing and $1.8 billion for genomic sequencing.
The Department of Health and Human Services will partner with the Department of Defense to make a $650 million investment to expand testing in K-8 schools and congregate settings, such as homeless shelters. The departments will help create testing hubs that partner with laboratories across the country and expect to perform an additional 25 million tests per month.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said it would be impractical to require all teachers to get vaccinated before returning to in-person learning but encouraged states to make teachers a vaccination group priority. The Biden administration has said it wants to get kids back in schools, but safety measures should be taken, such as distancing, mask-wearing and proper ventilation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s school reopening plan does not require that all teachers be vaccinated.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said it’s important to see a decrease in community spread of the virus before returning to in-person learning. Last week, 90 percent of U.S. schools were in the highest level red zone of community spread, but this week just 75 percent of schools are in a red zone.
HHS and DOD will also make an $815 million investment in increasing domestic manufacturing of testing supplies and raw materials, including filter pipette tips, nitrocellulose used in antigen point-of-care tests and specific injected molded plastics needed to house testing reagents.
Finally, the CDC will increase genomic sequencing of the virus with a $200 million investment in expanding sequencing capabilities including bioinformatics, reporting and modeling. This funding surge will provide about a threefold increase in the CDC’s sequencing capacity and should allow it to scale up to approximately 25,000 samples per week. The CDC expects to leverage commercial laboratories, academic and research institutions and other laboratories across the country to increase sequencing. This investment is particularly important as more COVID-19 variants arise across the country.
Virus variants from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil have already made landfall in the United States. In a new study released Sunday, scientists reported seven additional mutations of COVID-19 that originated in the U.S. All seven variants are evolving from the same mutation, Q677. Scientists are still unsure if these new variants are more contagious or deadly.
Fauci said scientists are closely tracking whether vaccinated people can transmit the virus, and while more research is needed, early studies suggest positive trends. Scientific studies have been able to prove that there is a direct correlation between viral load and transmissibility, which suggests that vaccines can reduce transmissibility.
Fauci pointed to Israel, which has seen a decrease in community spread after vaccinating much of its population, as an indicator that vaccines slow transmissibility. The National Institutes of Health and Moderna are currently conducting more research on this, as is Pfizer.