£20 million project to map Coronavirus spread using whole genome sequencing

26 March 2020

Researchers from across Norwich Research Park are part of a national project to map how COVID-19 spreads and behaves - using whole genome sequencing.

The £20 million initiative will see the UK’s leading clinicians and scientists search for breakthroughs that help the UK respond to this and future pandemics, and save lives.

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

It 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.

Samples from patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 will be sent to a network of sequencing centres across the country.

Dr Justin O’Grady, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, will lead a project to analyse COVID-19 samples and take a targeted sequencing-based approach to the genetic material to help identify any changes in the virus.

He said: “By looking at the whole virus genome in people who have had confirmed cases of COVID-19, scientists will be able to 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. It will also help prepare the UK and the world for future pandemics,” he added.

The work will be carried out at the Quadram Institute, where Dr O’Grady is based.

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.”

Prof Sharon Peacock, Director of the National Infection Service, Public Health England, 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.”

Prof 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.”