Illumina CEO says U.S. lags behind on catching COVID-19 mutations: CNBC

According to a new report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, a fast-moving strain of the coronavirus has been detected in at least 12 states. 

The CDC predicts that the variant—known as B.1.1.7, and first identified in the U.K. last fall—  “has the potential to increase the U.S. pandemic trajectory in the coming months,” and could become the predominant mutation by the end of March.

Though it is more infectious than previous strains of the virus, it has not appeared to be more lethal to an individual patient. However, a sharp increase in the total number of cases will put significant strains on hospitals, where many intensive care units are already approaching their full capacity.

It’s also not the only variant beginning to spread worldwide. The 501.V2 strain, first discovered in South Africa last December, has since spread to Australia, Europe, China and elsewhere. Viral mutations may hamper the ability of vaccines to provide immunity, Anthony Fauci said this week during a White House briefing, though so far it appears that Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech’s inoculations are still effective.

In addition, the latest South African variant could also be spreading in the U.S., although we might not know it, Illumina CEO Francis deSouza said in an interview on CNBC.

“I think the chances are high,” deSouza said on Squawk Box. “Because the reality is, in the U.S. we’re doing very little genomic surveillance.”

The sequencing giant Illumina has been working with genomic test provider Helix and the CDC to assess the prevalence of the B.1.1.7 strain across the country and has helped to identify dozens of cases. They are currently expanding efforts to help track additional mutations, but U.S. efforts currently lag behind other countries.

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“In the U.K., they sequence about 10% of the cases they see—and you want to sequence about 5% to get a good view of what’s happening in your community,” he said. “Here in the U.S. currently we sequence about 0.3% of positive cases. So we’re not getting a great picture.”

“It’s encouraging to see the early work coming out of the Biden administration,” deSouza said. “It seems like there is a recognition that we need something like this. But clearly, we’re behind.”