Coronavirus: £20m for team to 'unlock the secrets' of COVID-19 © Getty Images

Coronavirus: £20m for team to ‘unlock the secrets’ of COVID-19

The COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium will use whole genome sequencing to map the spread of the virus and how it behaves.

  • The Government has set up a group called the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium to research the virus.
  • The group has been given £20m to map the virus’s spread and study its behaviour.
  • The research will focus on whole genome sequencing, which can track whether new strains are developing.
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A group of leading scientists and clinicians has been given £20 million to fund new research that could “unlock the secrets” of COVID-19 to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, the Government has announced.

The team – the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium – will use whole genome sequencing to map the spread of the virus and how it behaves. It is believed this technique will lead to a greater understanding of the disease that will allow the UK to respond to the pandemic and save lives. It will also allow scientists to identify variants in the genetic code that may help to treat future mutations.

The consortium is made up of members of the NHS, public health agencies, genetic researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and numerous academic institutions. It is backed by the Government and the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. Sir Patrick said he was confident that the investment would lead to “vital” breakthroughs.

“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,” he 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.”

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The sequencing will be carried out using samples from “substantial numbers” of patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 which will be sent to a network of centres across the UK for analysis. Using this data, 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.

Prof Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service, Public Health England, said that understanding the spread was “crucial” in fighting the disease.

“This virus is one of the biggest threats our nation has faced in recent times,” she said. “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.”

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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.

How do scientists develop vaccines for new viruses?

Vaccines work by fooling our bodies into thinking that we’ve been infected by a virus. Our body mounts an immune response, and builds a memory of that virus which will enable us to fight it in the future.

Viruses and the immune system interact in complex ways, so there are many different approaches to developing an effective vaccine. The two most common types are inactivated vaccines (which use harmless viruses that have been ‘killed’, but which still activate the immune system), and attenuated vaccines (which use live viruses that have been modified so that they trigger an immune response without causing us harm).

A more recent development is recombinant vaccines, which involve genetically engineering a less harmful virus so that it includes a small part of the target virus. Our body launches an immune response to the carrier virus, but also to the target virus.

Over the past few years, this approach has been used to develop a vaccine (called rVSV-ZEBOV) against the Ebola virus. It consists of a vesicular stomatitis animal virus (which causes flu-like symptoms in humans), engineered to have an outer protein of the Zaire strain of Ebola.

Vaccines go through a huge amount of testing to check that they are safe and effective, whether there are any side effects, and what dosage levels are suitable. It usually takes years before a vaccine is commercially available.

Sometimes this is too long, and the new Ebola vaccine is being administered under ‘compassionate use’ terms: it has yet to complete all its formal testing and paperwork, but has been shown to be safe and effective. Something similar may be possible if one of the many groups around the world working on a vaccine for the new strain of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is successful.

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