Illumina pledges $60M in genomic sequencing expertise to help launch global outbreak-tracking network

Amid the havoc wreaked around the world by the COVID-19 pandemic, the race is on to protect against future outbreaks. After dipping its toe in these waters with last fall's launch of a pathogen-tracking initiative in Africa, Illumina is now diving in with a five-year commitment to a global version of that project.

The San Diego-based sequencing giant has partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other public and private groups to establish a network of public health organizations around the world and equip them with genomic sequencing technology to identify pathogens as early as possible, to help alert the rest of the world to emerging epidemics.

The initial focus of the project will be in South Asia, where Illumina and its partners will begin providing local public health authorities with the tools and training they need to track pathogen strains. In doing so, the project leaders will take into account each country’s specific needs to ensure the sequencing initiative remains practical and sustainable there.

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Illumina will donate next-generation sequencing platforms, reagents and training support to the initiative. That equipment and expertise is expected to reach a value of about $60 million across the next five years.

“Rapidly identifying outbreaks and tracking their spread and evolution will save lives around the world and is essential to strengthening healthcare systems,” Illumina CEO Francis deSouza said in a release. “Genomics has the power to revolutionize the way public health entities manage biological threats, and this global initiative will help make NGS technology and expertise accessible in areas of need.”

Beyond helping to identify new outbreaks before they can spread too widely, pathogen sequencing “will also contribute to research and development efforts for new vaccines, diagnostics and treatments for current and emerging infectious diseases,” said Trevor Mundel, the Gates Foundation’s president of global health.

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The global project builds directly on the Africa Pathogen Genomics Initiative, which was launched by Illumina, the Gates Foundation and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s Institute of Pathogen Genomics in October 2020.

Illumina directed $20 million in sequencing technology and training throughout a four-year commitment to Africa PGI. The initiative was established with a total $100 million commitment, with other partners including Microsoft, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, the U.S. CDC and more.

Along with identifying new pathogens, the Africa PGI project was also launched to support further research and public health responses to COVID-19 and other existing endemic diseases on the continent, including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and cholera.