In the wake of continued mutations of the coronavirus, the World Health Organization has committed to support African countries in scaling up genome sequencing to detect and monitor new COVID-19 variants for effective response.
The WHO has announced that it is setting up the Regional Centre of Excellence for Genomic Surveillance and Bioinformatics, in partnership with the South African National Bioinformatics Institute in Cape Town.
The initiative will support 14 southern African countries before expanding to more countries.
Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, said the center will help the countries to scale up their genome sequencing by fifteenfold monthly.
The analysis is expected to shed light on the pathways that COVID-19 is using to spread into communities.
"Knowing which variants are circulating and where is critical for informing effective response operations," Moeti said.
In addition to technical support, she said the WHO is providing the project with more than $4.5 million in the first six months.
Moeti said Africa lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to sequencing, accounting for only 1 percent of over 3 million COVID-19 sequences conducted worldwide.
"The third wave has shown us how variants can hijack the efforts to tame the pandemic. Countries must step up surveillance because without genomic information, variants can spread undetected."
WHO's regional center will not only help the continent in scaling up sequencing and bioinformatics for COVID-19, but also other diseases.
Unlike other parts of the world, Africa is prone to outbreaks of emerging and reemerging communicable diseases that have been claiming hundreds of lives annually.
Alan Christoffels, director of the South African National Bioinformatics Institute, said how Africa responds to COVID-19 through exploiting genomic technology will set a good stage for application in future pandemics and epidemics in the continent.
"Our partnership with WHO will help in supporting the analysis within countries so that they could best leverage the skills and training that have been received," Christoffels said.
"We are honing countries in the Southern African region with more hands-on assistance to help them carry out and interpret the data that is being produced with the view of building skills that will go beyond the COVID-19 pandemic."