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Michigan gets CDC grant to expand infectious disease genome sequencing

Technician prepares for a viral whole-genome sequencing experiment
Photo by National Cancer Institute
Four Michigan universities will join the statewide effort to track new infectious disease variants, including the virus that causes COVID-19.

A new federal grant will give Michigan far more capacity to sequence the genomes of infectious diseases, including the one that causes COVID-19.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced the $18.5 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control this week. It will bring labs from Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Wayne State, and the University of Michigan onboard for the Michigan Sequencing Academic Partnership for Public Health Innovation and Response (MI-SAPPHIRE). The four schools will split the grant money.

Genomic sequencing has become a key tool during the COVID pandemic. It lets scientists see how new pathogens are changing over time, and how that affects spread. Since March 2020, the MDHHS lab has sequenced 23,000 COVID genome samples.

State health officials said the collaboration will be a huge boost to those efforts.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance and need for genomic sequencing, surveillance and epidemiology capacity both globally and right here in Michigan,” said MDHHS director Elizabeth Hertel in a statement. “The MDHHS Bureau of Laboratories has rapidly expanded its efforts to identify COVID-19 variants since the start of the pandemic to support public health actions. MI-SAPPHIRE will allow our state to expand sequencing and analysis capacity and the number of pathogens that undergo routine sequencing, and ensure we are sampling diverse geographic areas across the state.”

Marty Soehnlen, director of the infections disease division of the state public health lab, said more genomic sequencing and enhanced data-sharing between the state and universities “will lead to better research capabilities down the line.”

“It allows you to be able to see things at a very fine detail, to see how the changes within a virus or bacteria will lead to problems with treatment or diagnostic tests,” Soehnlen said.

The project will start by sequencing more COVID-19 sample, and then “expanding into other infectious disease threats that have potential for broad community spread,” said Arianna Miles-Jay, an MDHHS genetic epidemiologist.

Officials said they hope to get the pilot project up and running within a few weeks. The CDC grant will cover costs for about two years, but Soehnlen said the hope is to create a working model that can then apply for more federal grant funding.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.