A team led by the Andersen Lab has been awarded a contract by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) in support of one of the largest SARS-CoV-2 surveillance programs in the United States.
The two-year, $2.5 million contract will fund the large-scale, near real-time sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 isolates from hospitals and local public health agencies in San Diego and nearby northwestern Mexico, and the development of software for tracking the evolution and geographical spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants.
The contract, an extension of one originally awarded in 2020, will be carried out by the San Diego Epidemiology and Research for COVID Health (SEARCH) Alliance, which was co-founded by Scripps Research, the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego), and Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego.
“CDC’s support for SEARCH’s genomic surveillance program has already led to significant COVID-19 public health advances as well as new science on SARS-CoV-2, and we expect much more progress in both areas as a result of this new award,” says principal investigator Kristian Andersen, PhD, a professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research.
Since the start of the pandemic, SEARCH has been conducting genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 using clinical samples collected at San Diego hospitals and from sources across the border in Baja California. SEARCH has also developed key protocols and analysis tools to track the emergence and spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants in wastewater. Moreover, SEARCH investigators are actively involved in understanding the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, and in several high-profile publications have found evidence for an initial spread from animals sold at the Huanan Market in Wuhan, China.
SEARCH’s efforts involve multiple collaborations, including with the CDC, San Diego County’s Health & Human Services Agency, the California Department of Public Health, Sharp Health, Scripps Health, the viral surveillance company Helix, and the Salud Digna healthcare network in Mexico. Since the start of the pandemic, these efforts have yielded publications and analyses of more than 70,000 SARS-CoV-2 sequences.
Under the new contract, SEARCH will accelerate its virus-sequencing workflow to produce more timely and actionable information on local virus spread and evolution—including the emergence of new variants and subvariants of concern.
“The current process of sampling, sequencing and analyzing a batch of virus samples from local hospital cases and wastewater treatment plants can take several weeks,” says Mark Zeller, PhD, project scientist in the Andersen lab. “We’re aiming to get that down to a matter of days, which would enable us to monitor the transmission chains in local outbreaks in near real-time.”
Working with the County of San Diego, the state of California and Mexican public health labs, the researchers will also continue to analyze the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 across the busy California-Baja border. Additionally, they’ll expand their genomic surveillance efforts to additional Mexican border states and popular tourist destinations, including Puerto Vallarta. The team will continue to post their analyses on SEARCH’s online dashboards.
The project includes the further development of open-source software tools to support the tracking of local SARS-CoV-2 evolution and transmission.
“The tools we’ve developed in recent years are already being used widely by the public health community for SARS-CoV-2 sequencing and analysis,” says Joshua Levy, PhD, postdoctoral research associate in the Andersen lab. “Under this new contract, we will be developing the technology to permanently transform how genomic surveillance will be used to strengthen our public health response.”