Would the U.S. Have Spotted Omicron as Fast as South Africa?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Joe Biden told Americans not to panic about the omicron Covid-19 variant because the U.S. has “the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, [and] the best scientists.” What the U.S. doesn’t have, however, is the best data. Although the country’s virus DNA sequencing has improved, its data infrastructure still isn’t robust enough to handle this and future pandemics.
When Biden assumed office, the U.S. was sequencing the DNA and thus identifying the viral strains of roughly 8,000 positive Covid-19 tests a week. Ten months later, U.S. labs are sequencing about 80,000 a week. Last week that amounted to one in seven PCR tests. This isn’t enough.
America’s health data collection system is a hodgepodge of state, local, private and government efforts, and it has proved difficult for the various agencies to share information. The result is that it takes the U.S. an average of 28 days to sequence and post the strain of any Covid-19 test. The U.K. does the same job in 10 days. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been slow to collect and release certain types of data — including data on breakthrough infections in vaccinated people.
South African scientists discovered the omicron variant by noticing an uptick in infections and then quickly sequencing the virus from tests in the hot-spot area. They promptly notified the world about the new strain. Preliminary data from South Africa now suggest that reinfections of Covid-19 are more common with the omicron variant. South Africa’s fast data gathering and sharing gave the rest of the world an early warning to confront omicron by donning masks again, getting boosters and perhaps eventually modifying vaccines.
In contrast, the CDC has struggled since the onset of the pandemic to adequately collect and publicize data. Some states have failed to report case numbers, deaths and demographic information to the CDC. Recently, the agency also has failed to track breakthrough infections, numbers that will be needed to navigate the omicron threat. The U.S. has often had to rely on data gathered elsewhere. Some policy decisions on boosters in the U.S., for instance, were made using early vaccine data from Israel and other countries.
An underlying problem for the U.S. is the decentralized nature of its public health system coupled with chronic underfunding of state and local agencies. With limited information, a risk-averse CDC has struggled to give clear guidance. Clearly, U.S. public health data-gathering operations need to be strengthened.
Local and state health departments need data-collection strategies and systems that can speak to one another. There have been stories of officials manually transferring tens of thousands of Covid-19 records. If each county in the U.S. collects data in its own format, the CDC cannot easily piece together the big picture. The U.S. needs to invest in standardizing and modernizing data collection, including by expanding the public health workforce.
As part of his Build Back Better spending package, President Biden proposed allocating $65 billion toward pandemic preparedness. House members scaled this back to reach consensus, trimming the allocated funds by 63%. The agreement provides a $7 billion down payment on the president’s proposal to support public health. While getting something passed is better than nothing, lawmakers should ensure that more of the funding goes toward improving America’s data infrastructure.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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