The U.K. government has kicked off a partnership of top institutions in the country with the establishment of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, which will focus on mapping the virus via whole-genome sequencing to better understand its makeup and how it spreads.
The initiative includes the National Health Service, public health agencies, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and 13 academic institutions, including the University of Birmingham, the University of Cambridge and the University of Glasgow (MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research), among others. This work will be supported by a £20-million investment, and the sequencing results will be shared with the government and hospitals to better arm professionals on how to combat the virus and its transference.
Samples will be processed at sequencing centers in Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford and Sheffield. According to a Wellcome Sanger press release, “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 the virus is spreading and whether different strains are emerging. This will help clinical care of patients and save lives.”
“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,” said Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance. “The U.K. 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 University of Birmingham team will be led by Nick Loman, professor of Microbial Genomics and Bioinformatics at the Institute of Microbiology and Infection, and has established a real-time genome sequencing facility that can sequence virus genomes in less than 24 hours. The University has another initiative underway that has prepared it well for the UK COVID consortium: the ARTIC project, a collaborative undertaking funded by a Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award. Under this project, Dr. Josh Quick, a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow in the Institute of Microbiology and Infection, developed a method for sequencing coronavirus that was released to researchers in January.
“Based on previous experiences with Ebola and Zika virus, we were able to rapidly develop an approach to sequencing the COVID-19 virus rapidly using a targeted method,” Quick commented. “The importance of this method is that it works well even when only minuscule amounts of virus are present in the sample, something we commonly see. It has been used to generate the first genomes from countries including Brazil, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with nanopore sequencing, and we have helped over 50 groups in over 20 countries establish genome sequencing capabilities in their own labs.”
Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome Sanger, stated: “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.”