Cambridge to spearhead £20million alliance to map spread of COVID-19 coronavirus

Coronavirus COVID-19       Credit:  gianniskorentzelos

Coronavirus COVID-19 Credit: gianniskorentzelos

The University of Cambridge is to take a leading role in a major national effort to help understand and control the new coronavirus infection (COVID-19) announced today by the Government and the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser.

Through a £20 million investment administered by the University, the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium - comprised of the NHS, Public Health Agencies, Wellcome Sanger 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 Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford and Sheffield.

The University, together with the Wellcome Sanger Institute, one of the world’s most advanced centres of genomes and data, will coordinate the collaboration between expert groups across the UK to analyse the genetic code of COVID-19 samples circulating in the UK and in doing so, give public health agencies and clinicians a unique, cutting-edge tool to combat the virus.

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.

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."

Whole genome sequencing involves reading the entire genetic code of the virus. It will help scientists understand COVID-19 and its spread. It can also help guide treatments in the future and help monitor the impact of interventions.

Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance 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 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.

The Consortium Director will be Professor Sharon Peacock, Chair of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the National Infection Service, Public Health England.

"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," said Professor Peacock. "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."

Work at the University of Cambridge will take place in the recently-opened Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology & Infectious Disease (CITIID). Dr Ewan Harrison from the Department of Medicine will serve as the Scientific Project Manager. Professor John Danesh from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care will serve on the consortium’s Steering Committee

"We are delighted to be leading this important national programme," said CITIID Director, Professor Ken Smith. "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."

Professor Sir Mike Stratton, Director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, 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."

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."

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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