Investment in Covid genomic surveillance must continue, researcher says

SÃO CARLOS, SP (FOLHAPRESS) – Brazil has managed to put in place a comprehensive framework for monitoring the genetic material of the Covid-19 virus during the years of the pandemic, and this system must continue to function if the country wants to seriously attack the infectious diseases of the world.

The evaluation is carried out by Marilda Siqueira, a researcher who directs the Laboratory of Respiratory Viruses and Measles of Fiocruz and coordinates the genomic network of the institution. “It is important to keep in mind that we are going to face new challenges like this. As I said in my presentations over 20 years ago, from the days when we still used transparencies instead of PowerPoint, when it came to pandemics, we are never a question of ‘if ‘, but of ‘when’ [algo assim vai acontecer].”

Siqueira spoke by telephone with Folha de S. Paulo during his participation in the Sixth International Symposium on Immunobiology, an event organized by the Institute of Technology in Immunobiology of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. The genomic monitoring carried out by her and other researchers in Brazil and around the world is what tracks how the Sars-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, has undergone changes in its genetic material over time. as it infects humans. population.

These changes occur randomly, due to copying errors that occur when the virus replicates in the cells it has invaded. Many of them have no effect or may even be harmful to Sars-CoV-2.

Others, on the other hand, are able to help the virus multiply more efficiently or better evade the body’s defense system, leading to the emergence of variants, such as those designated by the Greek letters delta and omicron. Knowing what happens to viral genes over time is therefore critical to tracking their spread and how vaccines and therapies might fare in the face of new versions of the coronavirus.

For the researcher, it is too early to say how this process could affect the risks brought by Covid-19 in the future. “We are still in a learning period. We have come a long way in treatments and vaccines, and there [o vírus] also evolved. Much remains to be understood.”

On the side of viral evolution, one of the big problems, she points out, is the absence of an equitable distribution of vaccines against Covid-19 in the world. Although currently available vaccinations cannot completely stop the spread of the virus, places with high vaccination rates are much less likely for Sars-CoV-2 to multiply than countries in which relatively few people have been vaccinated. . It is in these places that the pathogen is most likely to give rise to new dangerous variants.

“As a result, several countries are discussing the issue of the long-term sustainability of genomic surveillance. I recently attended a WHO meeting [Organização Mundial da Saúde] in Italy on this subject. Sharing genomic data involves a number of sensitive issues, but it’s very important to increase the speed at which the detection of a new pathogen is reported,” helping to coordinate public health measures, she says.

On the Brazilian side, Siqueira recalls that at the start of the pandemic, the country was struggling to expand its surveillance system, in part because of the input crisis. The problem is that the devices and raw materials used to sequence (“read”) genetic material are not produced in Brazil, and high demand in developed countries has caused manufacturing companies to prioritize long-term customers. date in these places.

After this first blow, however, public research funding bodies, such as Fapesp and Faperj (in São Paulo and Rio, respectively), as well as the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and the Ministry of Health, have succeeded in securing sufficient funding. so that the genomic diversity of Sars-CoV-2 can be tracked relatively reliably across the country.

Siqueira points out, for example, that all the so-called Lacen (Central Public Health Laboratories, linked to the Ministry of Health), present in each of the capitals, now have sequencing devices to carry out this work. “It could have been faster, perhaps, but the challenges are being met,” she summarizes.

Continued funding for this networking would help understand, for example, whether Covid-19 will begin to exhibit seasonal behavior similar to other respiratory viruses, such as those that cause influenza, whose impact on the population has tend to be concentrated in the fall and winter months in the southern and southeastern regions.

“The ideal would be to extend this monitoring to several respiratory viruses, including not only Sars-CoV-2 and influenza viruses. [da gripe] as well as respiratory syncytial virus [causador da bronquiolite, frequente em bebês e crianças pequenas]”, he says.

Influenza viruses, many of which also circulate among wild birds and domestic animals such as chickens, ducks and pigs, have always been considered candidates for causing future pandemics. The jump of new forms of the influenza virus from animals to humans is one of the potentially trickiest points in this regard.

“The follow-up of these cases is something that we still need to improve a lot. We have specific data, in the municipalities of Santa Catarina and other areas where the breeding of pigs and poultry is quite intense”, explains Siqueira.

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