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Jan. 30, 2021, 11:18 a.m. EST

The new B.1.1.7 is a ‘super-spreader’ strain. Here’s how the U.S. can control it, says Dr. Eric Topol

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Jaimy Lee

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Topol: In the world, there’s been probably around 400,000 viruses sequenced, and the U.S. has only contributed, let’s say, 50,000. Now, of the 50,000, number one was done at the University of Washington, and number two is at Scripps. The point is, these are academic labs that have no support to do it. There’s no grant and we’re just doing it. To get to 5%, in order to do that, you have got to get support or funding from somewhere, to get more people, more sequences, more reagents. We’ve had reagent bottlenecks. The virus samples have to come to do this, and it doesn’t just come out of the air. 

MarketWatch: Was the U.K. already a leader in sequencing, or is it something they’ve focused on during their COVID response? 

Topol: [The U.K.’s National Health Service] is the leading genomic center of the world. We both have been hit really hard with this virus, but their response is: We’re scaling up. They got support to do that immediately because that’s how they think there. It’s part of their culture. And even though they don’t have Illumina, and even though they don’t have Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. /zigman2/quotes/201150432/composite TMO -0.30% based there, the academic labs just seized the opportunity and the need. [Illumina, though based in San Diego, is working with Genomics England since January 2020 on a genomics sequencing program in the U.K, including for COVID-19. Topol is an advisor to Illumina.] This B.1.1.7 is going all over the world. They put the rest of the world on high alert.

MarketWatch: With B.1.1.7, that’s considered a strain and no longer a variant?

Topol: I hate to use the term “promoted” or “upgraded” to a strain because it’s the real deal. It is not like the original so-called wild type D614G . [This mutation, which likely occurred in Europe from the originally sequenced Wuhan strain, became the dominant strain of the virus in most of the world by mid-2020.] After being nice and quiet for a year, it developed into a monster. And the B.1.351 may be a little bit worse. That’s the one that has some interference with the neutralizing antibody, whereas the B.1.1.7 doesn’t seem to have that. 

MarketWatch: If there are more emphasis and funding put behind sequencing, could that help change the trajectory of the pandemic in the U.S.? 

Topol: If you found the B.1.1.7, and we were all over this, you would prioritize that for the contact tracing, the isolation, because this is a super-spreader strain. You’ve got super-spreader venues. This is a super-spreader strain, and it’s the first one we’ve had. You’d say, Okay, well, anybody who’s got this, they have a flashing neon sign on their forehead, and we got to get all over them tracing contacts because we’ve got to stop this. We’ve got to make this a priority because this one is a little wildfire. 

The other thing is, you also have as your general surveillance: wastewater, genomics, mobility, digital sensors. As we get vaccines out there at full tilt, we’re going to start seeing containment of the virus. And then there’s going to be places that are like whack-a-mole, the whack-a-virus where it starts to crop up again. If you’re sequencing and you’re doing these other things, you basically have a real-time dashboard in the country. And you see that, Oh, wow, Kalamazoo is lighting up. It’s just one of the layers of data that we should be streaming in real-time, that gives us a handle, because since this started the United States has been flying blind in every regard. 

This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Read more A Word from the Experts interviews:

•  Dr. James Hildreth: Here’s how to instill vaccine confidence among people of color

•  Dr. Zeke Emanuel says this is what it will take to fully reopen the U.S.

•  People of color shouldn’t be treated equally in COVID-19 vaccine trials, ER doctor says: They should be over-represented

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