£12.2 million boost for Covid-19 genomic surveillance

20th November 2020

University of Sheffield researchers will work with partners in the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium to map how COVID-19 spreads and evolves, thanks to a £12.2 million funding boost.

A collaboration of leading scientists and clinicians from across the country, COG-UK has been working to understand more about the virus, which has so far been responsible for more than 52,000 deaths in the UK alone.

The funding from the Department for Health and Social Care Testing Innovation Fund will help to facilitate the genome sequencing capacity needed to meet the increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases expected in the UK this winter, by allowing the team to expand whole genome sequencing of positive SARS-CoV-2 virus samples.  

Dr Thushan de Silva, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Infection, Immunity and Cardiovascular Disease, the lead consortium member from Sheffield, said: “We are very proud to have been involved in COG-UK consortium from the start of the pandemic and contribute to the national effort in SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance.

“SARS-CoV-2 viral sequencing has been invaluable in several areas, including documenting new viral variants and investigating transmission within hospital settings. 

“We are delighted that this new funding has been secured and look forward to being part of this unique national network as it is scaled up and strengthened to support control of the pandemic in the UK."

COG-UK researchers have built a central database and developed cutting-edge analytical methodology and data pipelines for SARS-CoV-2 genomics. COG-UK has led the development of analytical software to define viral lineages and shares methods globally. Collectively, these data and tools have provided important scientific insights into the spread and evolution of the virus, at local, regional, national and international scales.

Since its launch in March 2020, COG-UK has generated and made publicly available more than 100,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes, making up over 45 per cent of the global total. This unprecedented effort has not been achieved previously for any pathogen, anywhere in the world.

However, the steadily rising numbers of cases in the UK requires a prompt increase in the national SARS-CoV-2 genome sequencing capacity, to ensure that the benefits of using genome sequence data can be realised in a rapid and robust manner.

The additional investment will enable COG-UK to grow and strengthen current genomic surveillance efforts, with the aim of increasing sequencing capacity across the national network and reducing turnaround time from patient sample to genome sequence.

The viral genome sequencing data will be integrated within the four UK Public Health Agencies and NHS Test and Trace to help understand outbreaks and strengthen infection control measures. It will also be used to detect and track mutations that could be harmful to human health, such as those that could reduce vaccine efficacy.

COG-UK is made up of an innovative partnership of NHS organisations, the four Public Health Agencies of the UK, and researchers from academic partners across the UK, including the University of Sheffield, University of Birmingham, University of Cambridge, Cardiff University, University of Edinburgh, University of Exeter, University of Glasgow, Imperial College London, University of Liverpool, University of Nottingham, Northumbria University, University of Oxford, University of Portsmouth, the Quadram Institute – Norwich, Queen's University – Belfast, University College London, and the Wellcome Sanger Institute. In addition, a large number of other institutes and partners are essential to the COG-UK effort.

Looking ahead, researchers from all  partner organisations will continue to make immense contributions to sequencing, analysis, working on research priorities and R&D, supporting the CLIMB-COVID database and developing cutting-edge analytical tools.

Sharon Peacock, who is the Director of the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium, Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge and a Director of Science (Pathogen Genomics) at Public Health England, said: “I am delighted by this award, which will support our further expansion of whole genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2. Our purpose is to provide data that influences public health interventions and policy decisions, and through this make a contribution towards reducing the toll of COVID-19 on our population.

“I want to acknowledge the unstinting dedication, innovation, generosity and hard work of COG-UK Consortium Members, which has made this award possible. The network of laboratories and people in them underpins our productivity, outputs and success, and they will be vital in our ongoing success.”

For more information, visit: https://www.cogconsortium.uk or follow them on Twitter and check out their Blog

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