Home News The Coronavirus Is Mutating, and America’s Leaders Are Flying Blind

The Coronavirus Is Mutating, and America’s Leaders Are Flying Blind

The Coronavirus Is Mutating, and America’s Leaders Are Flying Blind

A new and potentially more contagious variant of the coronavirus has been detected in Britain and elsewhere. With the Trump administration continuing to do little to address the pandemic, state and local leaders have, again, been left to deal with this problem on their own.

To that end, on Monday Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York persuaded major airlines to require people traveling from Britain to New York to first clear a coronavirus test. Mr. Cuomo’s willingness to act quickly and decisively here is commendable — refreshing in a year rife with failures to do exactly that — and the move seems reasonable in the face of federal inaction and many unknowns.

But it’s important to understand just how profound those unknowns are, and why they exist in the first place. Neither scientists nor policymakers have any idea how widespread the variant in question is. Did it originate in Britain or migrate there from somewhere else? How many other countries is it in? It could already be in the United States — in New York — for all anyone knows.

That’s because only a tiny sliver of the planet’s 70 million-plus coronavirus cases have been genetically sequenced. That’s a missed opportunity. The newly discovered variant was only detected in Britain because scientists there are doing the most sequencing in the world, by far. Since Dec. 1, Britain has sequenced more than 3,700 coronavirus cases, compared with fewer than 40 cases in the United States, according to Trevor Bedford, who leads a viral sequencing effort at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Routine genetic sequencing of virus samples, what scientists call genomic surveillance, can provide crucial information about how a virus is evolving: if mutations are common, if new variants are emerging, how the virus is spreading from one place to another and whether cases in a given cluster are linked to one another. The latter is especially useful to know in health care settings, where it’s not always clear if new cases have come in from the outside, or if staff members and patients are infecting one another.

Genomic surveillance is also one of the few ways officials can determine whether, where and how to put travel restrictions in place. Without this data, even the fastest-acting, best-intentioned leaders — like Mr. Cuomo, in this case — are flying blind. They have no way to know which countries such measures should focus on, or whether such an effort would be worth the political blowback. For instance, it may not be worth it if the variant in question is already circulating widely in the United States, or if only a tiny amount of spread is being driven by overseas cases.

Dr. Bedford and others like him have done heroic work gathering the sequencing data that exists in the United States. But so far that data is far more paltry than it needs to be. It’s like a giant canvas where one corner has been painted in extraordinary detail but the rest is blank. No matter how vivid that one corner might be, it can’t illuminate the whole picture.

The current situation is reminiscent of the pandemic’s early days, when the virus was first detected in Wuhan, and U.S. officials enacted a travel ban against visitors from China — without realizing that the virus was already spreading through Europe and would soon make its way to the United States from there.

There are other limitations to Mr. Cuomo’s plan. For example, there are countless ways to get from Britain to New York, including by routing through other states and cities in the United States. Any passenger could easily sidestep the new structure by first flying to, say, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. It would help if federal leaders put similar measures in place across the country to avoid such loopholes.

But to truly solve this problem, federal officials need to increase the nation’s disease surveillance efforts, and in particular its genomic surveillance. Until they do that, Americans everywhere will be stuck in the same place we’ve been for the better part of this year: making often brutal sacrifices to try to slow the spread of the virus ourselves.

It’s unfair that individuals and small businesses have borne so much of that pain. But right now, it’s the only way to squelch this mutant — and any other that has yet to be detected.


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