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COVID-19 spread in hospitals to be mapped to 'break the chain'

Published: 07th October, 2020 at 09:36
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The study could help the NHS reduce transmission by determining if an individual caught the virus from someone else in the same hospital.

A new study will map the spread of coronavirus in hospitals in a bid to break the chain of transmission.


The clinical trial, led by scientists at University College London (UCL), will evaluate the use of real-time viral genomic data to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within hospitals.

The findings could help the NHS reduce further transmission by determining if an individual caught the virus from someone else within the same hospital, researchers say.

“Spread of COVID-19 infections in hospitals is now recognised to be a major problem for both healthcare workers and patients, and breaking the chain of these transmissions is critical," said Professor Judith Breuer, director of UCL/UCLH/GOSH biomedical research centres funded pathogen genomics unit, and trial lead.

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“Tried and tested procedures to minimise infection spread in hospitals are already in use, including separating COVID-19 infected patients from uninfected patients, extensive cleaning, the use of PPE, and continual hand-washing.

“Despite these measures, COVID-19 transmission to patients and staff is still occurring and has sadly proven fatal. So it is essential that we try out new tools such as viral sequencing to find out why this is happening and to help reduce hospital spread.”

The study, together with the UCL comprehensive clinical trials unit, forms part of the Government’s £20 million COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) which allows scientists to map the virus’s spread across the country.

By sequencing COVID-19 viruses rapidly, we hope to establish how hospital staff and patients became infected
Professor Judith Breuer

The COG-UK Hospital Onset COVID-19 Infection trial will involve more than 15 hospitals linked to COG-UK sequencing hubs across the UK. Each site will analyse the COVID-19 sequences in nasal and throat samples from all known coronavirus patients in the hospital, along with newly infected hospital patients and frontline NHS staff.

The trial will use the results from whole virus genome sequencing of all COVID-19 samples, which are now available within 24-48 hours, to try to reduce the number of hospital outbreaks.

Specifically, the data could help clinical teams in each hospital to see if newly infected patients have picked up the virus from a known positive patient within the hospital, or from outside the hospital.

COVID-19 viruses that are closely related, transmitted from one patient to another or to a healthcare worker, will have the same sequence. Equally, viruses from two people that have different sequences will rule out the possibility of transmission between patients or healthcare workers.

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“We already know that comparing the sequence of letters that make up one COVID-19 virus genome with the sequence of letters from COVID-19 in another sample, can tell us whether the two viruses are the same or different," Prof Breuer added.

“Therefore by sequencing COVID-19 viruses rapidly, we hope to establish how hospital staff and patients became infected. This will allow hospitals to put effective measures in place faster, to try to interrupt onward transmission of the virus and reduce the number and size of outbreaks.


“Such measures might include more regular deep cleans, checking and double-checking the effectiveness of PPE equipment, and moving other vulnerable patients out of the hospital entirely to another setting.”

How can I protect myself from the coronavirus when shopping?

You’ll have seen signs in your local supermarket advising you to keep two metres from others while moving around the store. This is key to reducing your chances of catching the virus while shopping.

The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is spread through respiratory droplets that leave our mouth and nose when we cough, sneeze, or sometimes even talk. The droplets sprayed out by an infected person will contain the virus, which could then enter your body via your mouth, nose or eyes (this is why you shouldn’t be touching your face).

Respiratory droplets don’t usually travel more than one metre, so by keeping two metres from others, you’ll reduce the likelihood of being in the firing line. To make it easier to keep your distance, try to shop during off-peak hours, choose a store that’s limiting the number of people who can be inside at any one time, and use self-checkout if you can.

Keeping your hands clean is the other main thing you can do. If possible, wipe the trolley or basket handles with a disinfectant wipe when you arrive at the store. When you get home, wash your hands or use hand sanitiser before and after unpacking your bags.

A US study found that the coronavirus can survive for up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to three days on hard, shiny surfaces such as plastic, so wiping down your purchases with a disinfectant spray or a soapy cloth before you put them away is another good habit to get into.

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.


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