Leading Cambridge UK and S.African genomics labs unite to take disease surveillance beyond Covid

25 Jan, 2024
Tony Quested
Genomic surveillance laboratories in Cambridge UK and South Africa, renowned for their work identifying new variants during the COVID-19 pandemic, have joined forces to identify emerging threats from infectious diseases.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute’s Genomic Surveillance Unit (GSU) and Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) have formed a new partnership to coordinate the genomic surveillance of infectious diseases globally.

This close relationship will allow teams in the UK and South Africa to share resources, coordinate strategies, and powerfully support partners in disease surveillance globally.

Their ambitious international plans will allow scientists to monitor more pathogens in more places, including viruses carried by mosquitoes, water-borne diseases, respiratory viruses and other diseases with pandemic potential.

Genomic surveillance continuously monitors the genetic changes and evolution of pathogens — viruses, bacteria, parasites — and their animal vectors, such as mosquitoes.

This provides an early warning system for drug or vaccine resistance, indicates geographical spread, and alerts researchers and public health officials to the emergence of new diseases. The data are then used to inform public health responses at national and international levels.

While the technologies to track disease at a genomic level have been under development for decades, the power of genomic surveillance for public health decision-making was clearly recognised during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Teams at the Sanger Institute and Stellenbosch University identified new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and quickly fed information to partners in public health2, which led to near-real-time policy change. 

This new collaboration builds upon experience gained during the pandemic as well as decades-long legacies in the genomic surveillance of malaria, HIV, and other diseases.

In light of the many factors driving up the threat from infectious diseases — climate change, habitat loss, urbanisation, globalisation — the development of genomic surveillance technology is more critical than ever.

In order to strengthen the new partnership, Professor Tulio de Oliveira, who founded and leads CERI and was the team leader on the discovery of the Omicron variant, will also join the GSU in the role of Deputy Director.

These strong ties between teams in the UK and South Africa are part of the larger global effort to coordinate disease surveillance. Working with an international network of scientists, the GSU and CERI will deepen knowledge of how infectious diseases are evolving and spreading, and close the information gaps that threaten public health.

In particular, these activities align well with the mission of the WHO’s new International Pathogen Surveillance Network (IPSN).

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) at Stellenbosch University, and Deputy Director of the Genomic Surveillance Unit (GSU) at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “We are really excited to launch this new partnership with the GSU. Between our two teams, we can share complementary facilities and work together on many diseases: from those carried by mosquitoes or floodwaters, to respiratory viruses with pandemic potential.

“We have amazing people and technology, we have shown strong results for multiple pathogens, and we have the attention of funders and governments. We are in a good position now to respond effectively to epidemics in our own regions, and support genomic surveillance across the world.”

John Sillitoe, Director of the Genomic Surveillance Unit (GSU) at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “We have great hopes for this new partnership with CERI, and are incredibly proud to welcome Professor De Oliveira on-board.

“Our institutes may be thousands of miles apart, but our aims and thinking could not be closer. Genomic surveillance is critical to making informed decisions on public health. This new partnership will combine resources and expertise in both organisations to support the control of infectious diseases globally.”