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.
The training, which was organized by the Instituto Conmemorativo Gorgas de Estudios de la Salud (ICGES) in Panama, the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ) in Brazil, and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), 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. 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.”
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, the information obtained can be complementary to guide the response to an epidemic or pandemic.
“This type of bioinformatic analysis is not something that is commonly done in public health laboratories in the region because it requires training and education,” said Alexander Martinez Caballero, Director of the Department of Genomics and Proteomics Research at the Gorgas Institute in Panama.
“From now on, many laboratories will be able to perform these analyses in their facilities in a timely manner and for various viruses of interest, such as monkeypox and others that may appear,” he said.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sequencing capacity to monitor SARS-CoV-2 and its variants has been expanded in the region with the support of PAHO and the Regional COVID-19 Genomic Surveillance Network (COVIGEN), which includes laboratories from more than 20 countries in the Americas.
PAHO 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.
The VEME course is one more action to strengthen surveillance and is aligned with the Regional Genomic Surveillance Strategy for Epidemic and Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which will be discussed in September by health leaders of the Americas during PAHO’s 30th Pan American Sanitary Conference in Washington.