Quadram scientist’s global work on hunting COVID variants shortlisted for impact award

22nd April 2022

Work led by Professor Rob Kingsley at the Quadram Institute to help countries in the developing world to track and hunt new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been shortlisted for a UEA innovation and impact award.

Scientists at the Quadram started sequencing the virus as part of COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) from March 2020 in this country but also worked closely with international colleagues in low and middle-income countries to enable similar vital public health measures globally.

Rob KingsleyBuilding on existing research activities in Zimbabwe, Prof Kingsley and colleagues at the Quadram worked with collaborators at Zimbabwe’s National Microbiology Reference Laboratory (NMRL) in Harare, to sequence of the genetic material of positive samples from 100 coronavirus patients, between March and June 2020.

Key objectives for NMRL were to help understand initial transmission of the disease, gain insight into domestic transmission of the virus, add context to the regional and global scientific data and to evaluate the role genomic sequencing could play in analysing infection outbreak.

To date more than a thousand samples have been sequenced through our partnership with NMRL highlighting subsequent waves of infection by variants if concern (VOCs) and placing the Zimbabwe infections in the context of the experience across the African continent. NMRL agreed to make sequence freely available via the GISAID database, ensuring benefit to the global response to the pandemic.

A key objective was to help NMRL build capacity for sequencing and sequence analysis within Zimbabwe. As a result, Zimbabwe’s NMRL has successfully sequenced genomes to help develop what could be called a “family tree,” or phylogenetic analysis, for the virus in Zimbabwe

The data released from Zimbabwe to freely accessible databases has also helped inform UK government policy on travel restrictions and a letter to the Quadram Institute from the Minister for Africa, Vicky Ford MP, stated: “Data obtained has helped inform and guide UK policy responses including a recent decision to remove Zimbabwe from England’s red list. The news has been welcomed by travellers from the UK and Zimbabwe, some of whom will now be able to visit family members after long periods of separation.”

Genomic sequencing and/or analysis work by Quadram researchers was also done with scientists in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Lebanon, Ireland, Germany, Rwanda, Tunisia, Palestine, Nepal, Israel, and Mexico through the pandemic.

Professor Rob Kingsley, research group leader at the Quadram Institute and Professor of Microbiology at UEA, said: “It’s great to be recognised for making a positive impact on people’s lives through our science. A truly world-leading part of the UK response to the Covid-19 pandemic was tracking the virus spread and evolution using genome sequencing. A group of scientists from the UEA, Quadram Institute and the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital all played a critical role in this effort.

This work involved a huge team effort and tracked transmission in hospitals, prisons and care homes in Norfolk, and contributed to identifying the emergence of variants of concern, guiding government policy in the UK and around the world. We were also delighted to be able to reach out to low-income countries to assist in sequencing of Covid-19, including training and capacity building. In Zimbabwe this helped guide both local responses and the global surveillance of new variants.”

Shortlist for Outstanding Impact in Policy and Practice:

• Sequencing Covid-19 genomes to inform public health policy; Prof Robert Kingsley (School of Biological Sciences/Quadram Institute)
• Break Staying Close Staying Connected; Dr Jeanette Cossar and Julie Young (School of Social Work)
• Visually communicating assessments of climate change to global audiences; Dr Jordan Harold (School of Psychology), Dr Irene Lorenzoni (School of Environmental Sciences) and Prof Kenny Coventry (School of Psychology)

You can read the full story of Rob and Quadram Institute colleagues’ work globally here: https://quadram.ac.uk/case_studies/genome-sequencing-sars-cov-2-plays-a-critical-role-in-informing-national-and-international-covid-19-public-health-responses/

The UEA Innovation and Impact Awards final is being held at the Assembly House in Norwich on 10 May 2022. https://www.uea.ac.uk/business/access-entrepreneurship-and-innovation/innovation-and-impact-awards

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Rob Kingsley