MICRA Partners Birmingham and Nottingham Join £20million National Consortium to Genetically Sequence the Coronavirus

MICRA is pleased to hear that the Government and the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser have backed the UK’s leading clinicians and scientists, including teams from our partners the Universities of Nottingham and Birmingham, 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.

Birmingham and Nottingham join the £20million consortium because of their substantial world leading strengths in fields relevant to the success of the project. These strengths have been recognised previously with funding provided to grow and enhance Nottingham’s DeepSeq facility, and grants to Birmingham to support the CLIMB project (which will run until at least 2024) and the Wellcome funded ARCTIC project which aims to put “genetics at the heart of outbreak response”. Enabling the region’s bio and medical science prowess to stand at the forefront of finding a lasting response to the pandemic.

Samples from patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 will be sent to a network of sequencing centres including Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford and Sheffield.

Professor Matthew Loose, Academic Lead for DeepSeq, School of Life Sciences, the University of Nottingham: “At DeepSeq we have access to rapid turnaround sequencing technology and a dedicated, experienced and committed team. We are grateful for the opportunity to contribute our time, experience, equipment and knowledge to support global efforts to better understand and track SARS-CoV-2. I am particularly grateful to the team in DeepSeq who are facilitating this work and the support we have received from our University community.”

Whilst the University of Birmingham’s Nick Loman, Professor of Microbial Genomics and Bioinformatics at the Institute of Microbiology and Infection says: “This is a remarkable collaboration which brings together Birmingham and the UK’s incredible depth of expertise and knowledge in viral sequencing and genomics. An open and distributed model of sequencing involving both academia, the NHS and our public health bodies is the right way to ensure results are delivered quickly to decision-makers. We are now well positioned to return deep insights into understanding the rapidly-accelerating pandemic of COVID-19, easily the most pressing infectious disease emergency we have faced in two generations in the UK.

“The government’s investment is well-timed to accelerate the pace of viral genome sequence production and ensure this information is openly available to epidemiologists and virologists worldwide. This will provide an unprecedented real-time view of COVID-19 virus evolution.”

Loman’s team has deployed a real-time genome sequencing facility established at the University capable of sequencing genomes of the virus causing COVID-19 from patients in the West Midlands in less than 24 hours.

Professor Richard Emes Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor for the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Nottingham, said: “We are proud to join this national partnership to track how the SARS-CoV-2 virus has affected the UK. The University of Nottingham has built an international reputation for genome sequencing at the DeepSeq facility at University of Nottingham and we are pleased to be able to support this initiative to generate and disseminate genomic information essential to better understand and combat this pandemic”.

Whilst at Birmingham Dr Josh Quick, a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow in the Institute of Microbiology says: “Based on previous experiences with Ebola and Zika virus we were able to rapidly develop an approach to sequencing the COVID-19 virus rapidly using a targeted method. The importance of this method is that it works well even when only miniscule amounts of virus are present in the sample, something we commonly see. It has been used to generate the first genomes from countries including Brazil, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with nanopore sequencing and we have helped over 50 groups in over 20 countries establish genome sequencing capabilities in their own labs.”

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.

“As a Government we are working tirelessly to do all we can to fight COVID-19 to protect as many lives and save as many jobs as possible.”

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.

This investment and the findings from the consortium will help prepare the UK and the world for future pandemics

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