Quadram Institute joins UK launch of whole genome sequence to map spread of Coronavirus

23rd March 2020

Government and scientific community back new genome sequencing consortium to map spread of COVID-19

  • Government and scientific community back new genome sequencing consortium to map spread of COVID-19
  • £20M investment will allow scientists and clinicians to unlock secrets of the disease
  • The genetic code could arm public health agencies and clinicians with a unique, cutting-edge tool to combat COVID-19

The Government and the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser have today (Monday 23 March) backed the UK’s leading clinicians and scientists to map how COVID-19 spreads and behaves by using whole genome sequencing. Through a £20 million investment, the consortium will look for breakthroughs that help the UK respond to this and future pandemics, and save lives.

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.

Dr Justin O’ Grady will lead Quadram Institute Bioscience’s work on analysing COVID-19 samples and take a targeted sequencing-based approach to the genetic material to help identify any changes in the virus. Head of informatics Dr Andrew Page will lead the bioinformatics analysis at the Quadram Institute in Norwich.

By looking at the whole virus genome in people who have had confirmed ases 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.

The CLIMB project, which is led by Professor Mark Pallen, research leader at Quadram Institute Bioscience, and principal investigator on the Medical Research Council-funded CLIMB project, will be providing computing support to the national sequencing efforts.

Director of the Quadram Institute, Prof Ian Charles, said:

“We welcome this vital work announced by the Chief Scientific Adviser to understand how COVID-19 spreads and behaves by using whole genome sequencing. It’s a testimony to the excellence of the scientific expertise we have here in Norwich that we will be contributing to this national, collaborative effort.

“I am very proud of all the efforts that my colleagues at the Quadram Institute and across the Norwich Research Park are making to reach the scientific answers we need to deal with this pandemic.”

Professor Mark Pallen, Director of the CLIMB project, said:

“It’s great to see CLIMB being used to track the spread of COVID-19. We have been funded as consortium of seven academic partners for over five years and have just heard that a follow-on project, CLIMB-BIG-DATA—led from the Quadram will receive UKRI funding for the coming five years. It’s rewarding to see our cloud-computing infrastructure, which provides versatile on-demand computing to UK microbiologists, now bridging the gap between academic and public health microbiology to attack this challenging new problem.

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.”

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.

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.”

Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome, said:

“By bringing together public health expertise from Public Health England and genomic science from the Wellcome Sanger Institute the UK can crack the code of this virus, and we should give everyone involved huge credit for that.

“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.

Related Targets

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Related Research Groups

Andrew Page

Justin O’Grady

Pallen group

Mark Pallen