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£20m Covid-19 alliance led by University of Cambridge and Wellcome Sanger Institute will use genomics to fight coronavirus




The University of Cambridge and the Wellcome Sanger Institute will lead a £20million national alliance designed to help understand and control the coronavirus infection.

Samples from patients with confirmed cases of Covid-19 will be sent across a network of sequencing centres, which will decode all the genetic information in them.

Covid-19 originated in Wuhan (32282525)
Covid-19 originated in Wuhan (32282525)

Examining the whole virus genome will enable scientists to monitor changes at a national scale. This will reveal how the virus is spreading and whether different strains are emerging.

The research is designed to inform clinical care, will help monitor the effectiveness of interventions and ultimately is designed to save lives.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said: “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 work will be carried out by the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, which brings together the NHS, public health agencies, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and academics institutions including the University of Cambridge.

The consortium director is Professor Sharon Peacock, chair of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge and director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England.

Prof Sharon Peacock, University of Cambridge (32289342)
Prof Sharon Peacock, University of Cambridge (32289342)

She said: “This virus is one of the biggest threats our nation has faced in recent times and crucial to helping us fight it is understanding how it is spreading.

“Harnessing innovative genome technologies will help us tease apart the complex picture of coronavirus spread in the UK, and rapidly evaluate ways to reduce the impact of this disease on our society.”

Large-scale, rapid sequencing of the virus will be carried out at centres currently include facilities in Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford and Sheffield.

The information gained will then be shared with hospitals, regional NHS centres and the government.

Professor Sir Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute at Hinxton - a world leader in genomics research - added: “Samples from substantial numbers of confirmed cases of Covid-19 will be whole genome sequenced and, employing the Sanger Institute’s expertise in genomics and surveillance of infectious diseases, our researchers will collaborate with other leading groups across the country to analyse the data generated and work out how coronavirus is spreading in the UK. This will inform national and international strategies to control the pandemic and prevent further spread.”

The consortium will rapidly be able to investigate clusters of cases in hospitals, care homes and the communities, which will help infection control measures to be introduced.

Professor Ken Smith, director of the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology & Infectious Disease, said: “We are delighted to be leading this important national programme. It builds on years of work on pathogen genomics by Professor Peacock and her group, and synergises with other major Covid-19 programmes being driven from Cambridge.

“The size and reach of this study across many centres in the UK will provide unprecedented insight into the biology of Covid-19 and its impact on the population. It will be essential for understand how this virus spreads and why it causes disease, and for monitoring how it evolves, particularly looking at whether it becomes more or less dangerous.”

Prof John Danesh, professor of epidemiology and medicine, and head of the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge (32282326)
Prof John Danesh, professor of epidemiology and medicine, and head of the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge (32282326)

Dr Ewan Harrison, from the university’s Department of Medicine will serve as the scientific project manager, while Professor John Danesh, from the university’s Department of Public Health and Primary Care, will serve on the consortium’s steering committee

Business secretary Alok Sharma said: “At a critical moment in history, this new consortium will bring together the UK’s brightest and best scientists to build our understanding of this pandemic, tackle the disease and ultimately, save lives.

“As a government we are working tirelessly to do all we can to fight Covid-19 to protect as many lives and save as many jobs as possible.”

The UK Consortium is supported by the government, including the NHS, Public Health England and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and by Wellcome.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, said: “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.”

Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance

Professor Fiona Watt, executive chair of the Medical Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation said: “The UK is a leader in cutting-edge genome sequencing science. We are now applying specialist expertise in our fight to slow the spread of coronavirus and accelerate treatments for those affected.

“The ambitious and coordinated response of our research community to the Covid-19 challenge is remarkable. This investment and the findings from the consortium will help prepare the UK and the world for future pandemics.”

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