A surveillance system to spot pathogens early

August 15, 2023 – Because detecting infectious disease outbreaks early is key for preventing the next pandemic, researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health are building a genomics-based surveillance system in West Africa, a hot spot for emerging pathogens.

The disease surveillance system, called Sentinel, was featured in an August 9 STAT article. Started in 2008, Sentinel is a collaboration between Pardis Sabeti, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard Chan School, and Christian Happi, a professor of molecular biology and genomics at Redeemer’s University and adjunct professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard Chan School.

Sabeti emphasized the importance of ongoing disease surveillance to stop outbreaks before they spread widely. “I have no idea why humanity has decided to just give pathogens a pass, and only care about them when they shut down society,” she said.

The STAT article noted that diagnosing infections in Africa takes a long time, since patient samples need to be sent to a centralized national laboratory for genome sequencing. Sentinel aims to address the problem by providing low-cost tests that can be performed on a simple paper strip, accessible to frontline health care workers in community settings and rural hospitals.

In early 2020 when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the Sentinel system was already in place to scale up testing for the virus, leading to the detection of the first COVID-19 case in Nigeria. Looking ahead, the researchers hope that Sentinel can be expanded to improve surveillance on a global level.

Read the STAT article: Meet the scientists trying to stop the next global pandemic from starting in Africa