Welsh scientists are set to take a leading role in mapping the spread of coronavirus as part of a £20m project announced today by the UK’s chief scientific adviser.
The COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) brings together experts from across the NHS, academia and public health agencies for large-scale, rapid sequencing and analysis of the disease.
This information can then be quickly shared with hospitals, the NHS and the government to help inform their response to the pandemic.
The £20m funding will create Wales’s only COVID-19 sequencing centre, comprised of a team of Cardiff University and Public Health Wales (PHW) scientists.
Cardiff University’s Dr Tom Connor, who will lead the Cardiff sequencing centre, said: “Genomic sequencing will help us to understand coronavirus and its spread.
“By analysing samples from people who have had confirmed cases of COVID-19, scientists can monitor changes in the virus at a national scale to understand how the virus is spreading and whether different strains are emerging.
The Welsh team has already sequenced more than 50 COVID-19 virus genomes from Wales, through funding from Welsh Government and Public Health Wales.
The service has the potential to sequence Welsh samples within 24 hours to enable real-time response to the results.
Dr Catherine Moore, consultant clinical scientist at the Wales Specialist Virology Centre, said the data being generated already was giving scientists “incredible” insights into the transmission and dynamics of a new virus into a population with no immunity.
“By tracking the global spread of coronavirus at the genomic level we can see transmission on a local and regional level. This gives us vital insights into how we might stop the spread and look in more detail at the impact of social distancing compared to more extreme policies such as ‘locking’ down, sometimes entire cities and countries,” she said.
“Within Wales, we have been able to monitor not only the introduction of the virus into the country but also determine when local transmission events have occurred, and then when we started to see more sustained community transmission.
“Over the coming months, by freely sharing our data globally, researchers and modellers in public health will be able to determine the effect of preventative interventions and policies adopted by different countries governments. Most importantly once a vaccine has been developed, we will be able to monitor how that will impact further on reducing transmission.”
Dr Connor, a reader in the School of Biosciences and bioinformatics lead for pathogen genomics at PHW, said: “This consortium is unprecedented in both the speed it has come together and the ambition to sequence so many samples in real-time. By using the expertise and capacity across the whole of the UK, COG-UK will bring benefits to the NHS across the UK, delivering an equitable service and providing insight at both local and national levels.
“By analysing COVID-19 genomes from Welsh patients we will be able to more accurately track the evolution of the outbreak in Wales, providing valuable information to inform the public health response both here and on a UK-wide level.”