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23 March, 2020 - 08:43 By Tony Quested

Genomics sleuths in £20m bid to map spread of COVID-19

Scientists and clinicians from Welcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge and Quadram Institute in Norwich are weighing into a £20 million project to map how COVID-19 spreads and behaves by using whole genome sequencing. 

The Government and the UK’s chief scientific adviser have today backed the consortium which will look for breakthroughs that help the UK respond to this and future pandemics – and save lives.

COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium – comprising the NHS, Public Health Agencies, Wellcome Sanger Institute, Quadram Institute and numerous academic institutions – will deliver large scale, rapid sequencing of the cause of the disease and share intelligence with hospitals, regional NHS centres and the Government.

Samples from patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 will be sent to a network of sequencing centres which currently includes Cambridge, Norwich, Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Nottingham, Oxford and Sheffield.

Dr Justin O’ Grady will lead Quadram Institute Bioscience’s work on analysing COVID-19 samples and take a targeted sequencing-based approach to the genetic material to help identify any changes in the virus. Head of informatics Dr Andrew Page will lead the bioinformatics analysis at the Quadram Institute at Norwich Research Park.

By looking at the whole virus genome in people who have had confirmed cases of COVID-19, scientists can monitor changes in the virus at a national scale to understand how it is spreading and whether different strains are emerging. This will help clinical care of patients and save lives.

The CLIMB project, which is led by Professor Mark Pallen, research leader at Quadram Institute Bioscience, and principal investigator on the Medical Research Council-funded CLIMB project, will be providing computing support to the national sequencing efforts.

Director of the Quadram Institute, Professor Ian Charles, said: “We welcome this vital work announced by the Chief Scientific Adviser to understand how COVID-19 spreads and behaves by using whole genome sequencing. 

“It’s a testimony to the excellence of the scientific expertise we have here in Norwich that we will be contributing to this national, collaborative effort.
“I am very proud of all the efforts that my colleagues at the Quadram Institute and across the Norwich Research Park are making to reach the scientific answers we need to deal with this pandemic.”

Government  chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance said: “Genomic sequencing will help us understand COVID-19 and its spread. It can also help guide treatments in the future and see the impact of interventions.

“The UK is one of the world’s leading destinations for genomics research and development, and I am confident that our best minds, working as part of this consortium, will make vital breakthroughs to help us tackle this disease.”

The UK Consortium, supported by the Government, including the NHS, Public Health England, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and Wellcome, will enable clinicians and public health teams to rapidly investigate clusters of cases in hospitals, care homes and the community, to understand how the virus is spread and implement appropriate infection control measures.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, said: “By bringing together public health expertise from Public Health England and genomic science from the Wellcome Sanger Institute the UK can crack the code of this virus, and we should give everyone involved huge credit for that.

“Rapid genome sequencing of COVID-19 will give us unparalleled insights into the spread, distribution and scale of the epidemic in the UK. The power of 21st century science to combat this pandemic is something that those going before us could not have dreamt of and it is incumbent on us to do everything we can to first understand, and then limit, the impact of COVID-19.”

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