UK to share genomics expertise to identify COVID-19 variants

A New Variant Assessment Platform will open up Britain’s genomics laboratories and offer advice and resources to other countries in need.
By Sophie Porter
02:05 AM
covid-19, genomics

The Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that the UK will offer its genomics expertise to other countries in order to help them identify new variants of COVID-19. This will be facilitated through the launch of the New Variant Assessment Platform, a UK-based service that will offer up the country’s laboratories to analyse samples of potential new strains of the virus.

WHY IT MATTERS

The New Variant Assessment Platform will enable scientists and governments across the globe to sequence the full genetic code of COVID-19 in Britain’s genomics laboratories. This is intended to uncover new variants of the virus earlier and to help identify their individual mutations. The platform will also offer expert advice and support including training and resources to foreign countries, enabling optimised responses, both medically and politically. 

Britain is a global leader in genomics. It is said to have carried out more than half the genome sequences of COVID-19 submitted to a global database. By opening up the UK’s genomics facilities to the rest of the world - particularly to countries with limited sequencing resources - it is hoped that health services will be able to keep on top of mutations in COVID-19, and will be able to respond accordingly to limit the spread.

THE LARGER PICTURE

The UK owes some of its pioneering status in genomics to the work and recommendations of Dame Sally Davies, England’s former chief medical officer. Under her direction, the NHS founded Genomics England and the 100,000 Genomes Project, which aimed to fully sequence 100,000 genomes in order to better understand diseases such as cancer. This lead to the foundation of seven national genomics laboratory hubs across the UK and the mainstreaming of genomic services across the NHS. 

ON THE RECORD

"This pandemic has shown that the foundations of so many of the exciting experiences that make life worth living are contingent not just on our health, or the health of our neighbours, but the health of people across the world,” Hancock professed in a speech at the Chatham House thinktank yesterday (26  Jan). “The new variants of coronavirus have demonstrated this once again, so we must work to promote health security right across the world.”

He continued: “Our New Variant Assessment Platform will help us better understand this virus and how it spreads and will also boost global capacity to understand coronavirus, so we're all better prepared for whatever lies ahead."

Dr Isabel Oliver, director of Public Health England's National Infection Service, said: "We know that the virus will evolve over time and certain mutations could potentially cause the virus to spread faster, make people sicker, or possibly affect how well vaccines work. Genomic testing is crucial to our efforts to control the virus - it allows us to keep an eye on how the virus is changing and to respond before it's too late.”

She continued: “This new initiative will bring Public Health England's cutting edge science to countries that have little or no ability to sequence and analyse COVID-19 virus strains themselves. It will also give us crucial early warning of new variants emerging around the world that might endanger the UK."

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