WHO’s recently published global strategy for the genomic surveillance of pathogens offers a practical framework for future pandemic preparedness, which COG-Train is already starting to deliver on.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a defining moment in history, illustrating the critical importance of genomic surveillance methods in mitigating against disease outbreaks. According to data collected by the World Health Organization (WHO), 68% of countries had sequencing capacity in January 2022, up from 54% of countries in March 2021. This suggests that public health authorities and scientific institutions globally are registering the need to improve their infrastructure. Consensus from expert organisations also indicates a vital need to innovate our approach to monitoring pathogens. On three separate occasions in 2021 the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee for COVID-19 recommended increasing global sequencing capacities, encouraging the rapid sharing of data (including metadata), and for WHO to actively support countries to strengthen systematic genomic surveillance. To address this need, in March 2022, WHO released an ambitious and timely 10-year strategy for the genomic surveillance of pathogens.
Central to WHO’s strategy is a rigorous focus on global health. Dr Senjuti Saha, Director and Scientist at the Child Health Research Foundation in Bangladesh – and also the country’s foremost researcher in the genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 – demonstrates this point well. “We have learned in the last two years that diseases cannot be studied in isolation. Pathogens do not follow borders. Diseases move quickly from one place to another. And if we truly want to track pathogens in real time, it is very important that across the world, all communities and all countries must have their own genomic capacity.”
WHO’s strategy is underpinned by a series of five key objectives, including: improving access to tools for better geographic representation, strengthening workforces, enhancing data sharing for more streamlined public health decision-making, maximising connectivity within broader surveillance architectures, and maintaining an alert posture for public health emergencies. Many of the objectives put forward by WHO’s strategy were already incorporated in our COG-Train Programme, which started delivering on these objectives, and receiving encouraging feedback from participants worldwide, earlier in 2022.
For example, the COG-Train distributed classrooms course covering practical bioinformatics skills in SARS-CoV-2 sequence analysis and interpretation of sequence data for public health response will be delivered via mixed-model learning distributed classrooms. This will enable instructors to disseminate skills over a very large audience, encapsulating WHO’s first strategic objective of improving access to tools for better geographic representation.
We are also committed to ensuring that our virtual courses align with WHO’s second objective in relation to strengthening workforces, specifically the principle of promoting knowledge exchange programmes to disseminate and share best practices that build capacity.
In addition, the content of our online courses closely aligns with WHO’s third objective regarding enhancing data sharing, namely by establishing data sharing and access principles that are widely agreed upon and explicit – and to foster transparency for rapid and equitable dissemination.
Finally, COG-Train’s virtual courses emphasise live interaction between tutors and learners in a small group environment and are aimed at researchers and healthcare professionals in Africa, Asia and Latin America. To maximise the impact of this aspect of the programme, COG-Train also delivers train-the-trainer resources to increase capacity building by supporting trainees to deliver their own courses in the future.
We are excited to continue delivering on our shared objectives with the WHO and are particularly encouraged to have received positive feedback from Dr Gina Samaan, Unit Head, Global Pandemic Preparedness Platforms, WHO. Gina has commented: “Training programmes like COG-Train align with the Global Strategy’s second objective to strengthen workforce capacities to be able to deliver at speed, scale and quality. Countries need to have a competent genomic surveillance workforce so that quality and timely data are generated to inform pandemic and epidemic preparedness and response.” Furthermore, the COG-Train team keeps working closely with counterparts at WHO on developing additional COVID-19 genomics training.
COG-Train’s second course “From Swab to Server: Testing, Sequencing, and Sharing During a Pandemic” has launched and is currently available on the FutureLearn platform. Click here to enrol.
The remaining courses will run later in the year (Bioinformatics in July, Sequencing in September and Public Health Policy in November).