Health Dept. to create system to detect COVID-19 strains

By The Star Staff

The island Health Department will begin efforts in early 2021 to build the first genomic surveillance system to detect important variants of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The project will represent the first Health Department effort aimed at establishing a public genomic surveillance system in Puerto Rico following news that a new strain of the virus was detected in Great Britain and early this week in the mainland United States.

“Our scientists are vigilant and active in the search for resources that improve our processes,” Health Secretary Lorenzo González Feliciano said in a statement. “We have focused on defeating the pandemic with prevention and obtaining the greatest amount of data in order to determine the behavior of the virus. I am sure that this project will be key for the detection and control of COVID-19 on the island.”

The project, whose budget is estimated at $298,000 over a 12-month period, seeks to categorize COVID-19 positive samples from travelers and special cases associated with outbreaks, hospitalizations and deaths to identify the variants of the virus and associate them with epidemiological patterns. The information obtained from the surveillance will help in making decisions about the management of the pandemic on the island.

“Genomic surveillance is a tool that allows us to know the behavior of a virus in the population using the description of the viral genome in conjunction with epidemiological variables, which include demographic and clinical data,” said Fabiola Cruz, an epidemiologist who will be leading the project. “At a global level, this tool has been key to studying the behavior of the virus that causes COVID-19, providing enough data to identify important mutations that are circulating in countries and decipher patterns of contagion.”

Cruz said that over the past few months, the agency has set up an epidemiological surveillance system for COVID-19 capable of collecting data on the profile of cases and their behavior. However, to bring the surveillance up to a level that permits the association of genetic variants of the virus with the behavior of the pandemic in Puerto Rico, a genomic surveillance system is needed.

More than 286,000 genomes have been sequenced worldwide, making it possible to identify variants of interest, such as the one recently detected in the United Kingdom, and to raise alerts for a variant that appears to have a greater capacity to transmit the virus, Cruz said.

“The project will forge collaborations with experts from different areas to expand surveillance, at the same time that laboratory personnel from the Department of Health will be integrated for the required training,” she said. “This will ensure an increase in the capacity of our health system to implement genomic surveillance, which can be applied to COVID-19 as well as to other infectious diseases.”

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