The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) says it is strengthening genomic surveillance in the Americas, including the Caribbean, as representatives from 17 public health laboratories in the region came together this week for the 26th edition of the Viral Evolution and Molecular Epidemiology (VEME) course in Panama.
On Friday, the health organization said the training – which it organized in collaboration with the Instituto Conmemorativo Gorgas de Estudios de la Salud (ICGES) in Panama and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ) in Brazil – “aims to strengthen genomic surveillance in the Americas.”
Studying the evolution of viruses is key to detecting mutations or variants that can modify the transmission rate or severity of a pathogen and affect the efficacy of diagnostic tests, vaccines, and treatments,” said Jairo Méndez, emerging viral disease advisor at PAHO. “This is something we experienced with SARS-CoV-2, so we must deepen genomic surveillance for any emerging or re-emerging viruses,” he added.
More than 120 people from around the world participated in the 26th edition of VEME, a course that originated at the University of Leuven, Belgium, more than 25 years ago.
Around 50 experts in bioinformatics from renowned scientific institutions from 15 countries delivered the training that took place from August 21 to 26 in Panama, PAHO said.
Participants from the region were supported through PAHO with funds from the United States government.
The course consisted of theoretical and practical sessions divided into four modules, ranging from the generation of data from genomic sequencing to more complex analysis of these sequences.
For the first time, VEME also included a module aimed at managers and decision-makers.
Dr. Carlos Sáenz, Secretary General of the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health, considered the training to be “extremely important” both for the technicians who carry out genomic sequencing and for decision-makers like himself.
“The course has provided tools to link the epigenetic situation, genomic sequencing and molecular epidemiology information to political and strategic decision-making at the level of each country,” he said, highlighting the relevance of “integrating technical approaches with transdisciplinary participation for the resolution of complex problems.”
According to PAHO, genetic sequencing and analysis provide insights into the evolution of a virus and its variants, as well as its geographic- and temporal- dispersion.
“The timely analysis of the data serves to identify signs or changes that can have an impact on the behavior of the virus and on health tools and measures.”
In addition, it said the information obtained can be complementary to guide the response to an epidemic or pandemic.
PAHO said it has provided training to strengthen genomic sequencing and to integrate it into epidemiological surveillance in the countries.
Since 2020, COVIGEN has performed more than 426,000 sequences of SARS-CoV-2 in Latin America and the Caribbean, PAHO said.