By BILL LEVESQUE
University of Florida Health researchers are joining an ambitious global effort led by The Rockefeller Foundation to better track the coronavirus and its variants and set up a network of collaborators to stop any nascent pandemic in the future.
UF is working with the University of Central Florida as one of The Rockefeller Foundation’s “U.S. Regional Accelerators of Genomic Surveillance” to establish a network of institutions and laboratories in Florida and, ultimately, throughout the Southeast.
A key focus is conducting genomic analysis of the virus to track emerging variants and provide a way to more clearly understand how COVID-19 is behaving as it ebbs and flows across the American landscape, said Marco Salemi, Ph.D., a faculty member in the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute who is helping lead the UF Health effort.
That information can then inform efforts to corral the coronavirus.
“The virus keeps evolving, new mutations keep emerging,” Salemi said. “We need to have a system and a network that is sufficiently robust for us to hopefully capture the emergence of new variants or potentially vaccine-resistant strains as soon as we can.”
Salemi, a professor of experimental pathology in the UF College of Medicine’s department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine, said the initiative builds on an existing program UF Health has developed in recent months with UCF and the University of Miami. Through that collaboration, UF has sequenced the genomes of more than 3,000 strains of the coronavirus in North Central and Central Florida.
And once The Rockefeller Foundation’s network is established in the Southeast and globally, it will be available for the inevitable next pandemic.
“The idea is to put an infrastructure in place, a consortium of universities and labs that have the know-how, personnel and necessary administrative support to immediately deploy resources in the field as soon as there is a new outbreak — to get samples, sequence them and obtain molecular information about the new circulating virus,” Salemi said.
Rockefeller’s hope is to be able to stop the next pandemic within 100 days of an outbreak by strengthening global capabilities to detect and respond to a threat.
“Fast, accurate genomic sequencing information is the key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic and the suffering it has caused,” said Rajiv J. Shah, M.D., president of the Rockefeller Foundation. “Yet today only 14 countries, all of which have developed economies, are sequencing 5% or more of their cases and sharing them through global databases. For that reason, The Rockefeller Foundation is strengthening global sequencing capacity to end this pandemic for all as soon as possible.”
Rockefeller is working with more than 20 public, private and nonprofit organizations on what it calls a Pandemic Prevention Institute that will use data insights to get a handle on any pandemic. Rockefeller hopes to strengthen genomic sequencing capabilities around the world.
The foundation said in a news release that as COVID-19 variants continue to drive surges, reliable genomic surveillance will help accelerate timely analysis and inform response measures.
UF and UCF are tagged with providing strategic and operational support as they coordinate improved and diversified regional surveillance across a network of institutions and laboratories in Florida and the Southeast.
Salemi said the tragedy that has clouded the life of the nation for more than a year may yet be partially redeemed through an effort to be better prepared for the next pandemic.
“This is the time to act,” he said. “This is the time to learn from our past mistakes to coalesce into these new kinds of initiatives that build epidemic preparedness infrastructure for the future.”
Salemi said that for the last several months, UF Health has been ramping up its virus genomic surveillance after a $250,000 investment by the university.
Salemi said this sort of advanced capability is only possible because of a convergence of combined strengths that UF brings to bear, from the advanced work of the Emerging Pathogens Institute and the UF Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research to the supercomputing capabilities of UF’s HiPerGator coupled with advances in artificial intelligence.
“UF is uniquely positioned to do molecular surveillance,” Salemi said. “We’ve built a very strong interdisciplinary team.”
He also highlighted the tremendous capabilities of UF Health’s pathology lab, whose COVID-19 testing capabilities played a crucial role in controlling the coronavirus on campus and in the greater Gainesville community.
“Ours and The Rockefeller team’s efforts,” Salemi said, “can be insurance against the next pandemic.”