Portsmouth scientists to help crack the COVID-19 code

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Portsmouth

27th May 2020, Delhi NCR: Researchers from the University of Portsmouth are being deployed to the front line in the race to understand how coronavirus spreads.   

A team of researchers from the Faculty of Science and Health at the University of Portsmouth, led by Dr Sam Robson from the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI), are working as part of the national effort for virus surveillance through the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (https://www.cogconsortium.uk).  

As the virus moves from person to person, it can change slightly, acting as a kind of fingerprint for tracing transmission. The study will sequence the virus from patients testing positive for COVID-19 to quickly determine the precise version of the virus causing infection, which can be used to track how it is spreading throughout the UK. The samples have been taken from patients across the region, which has seen a significant number of COVID-19 cases. 

The University of Portsmouth has committed £40,000 of funds to help with the work. In addition, the team is part of a national consortium that aims to learn more about the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK Government recently announced that £20 million has been invested into the consortium to study COVID-19. Expert groups from across the country are collaborating with the world renowned Welcome Sanger Institute, one of the most advanced centres for genome data analysis. 

Dr Robson’s team will analyse the genetic code of the virus and will be able to track as it changes and mutates as it spreads across the country.  It will also provide information on whether or not outbreaks are due to introductions from outside or ongoing transmission within the community, the effects of Public Health responses such as social distancing, and provide significant resources in the development of potential treatments and vaccines

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 researchers will be looking for distinct mutations and lineage of the virus that may have developed as the pandemic has evolved. Particular attention will be paid to clusters of cases in hospitals, care homes and the community

Dr Robson said: “This is a strategic attempt to further understand the virus, and help to track, predict and ultimately stop the spread of COVID-19 globally. Understanding how the virus is changing over time will allow us to understand how it is adapting and spreading, and we will be looking at the impact that this can have on the patients themselves. Genomic data resources such as these will also help scientists identify potential targets for treating the disease.

Professor Sherria Hoskins, Executive Dean, Faculty of Science and Health, University of Portsmouth, said: We are very fortunate at the University of Portsmouth to have the research expertise and equipment that we can redeploy to help in our understanding of the spread of this pandemic. I am very proud of our researchers who are so willing to take on these new roles and relocate to our local hospital to analyse hundreds of patient viral samples. These key data will feed into a national effort to improve the outcome of this disease and will be crucial to the development of a robust vaccine programme.”

NOTES FOR EDITORS:

The University of Portsmouth team will use these viral RNA samples for Nanopore sequencing (MinION and GridION) to generate whole viral genome sequences for patient samples that have tested positive for presence of the virus that causes COVID-19, known as SARS-CoV-2. This will allow identification of distinct lineages of the virus that have arisen as the pandemic has evolved, epidemiological tracing of the virus by linking with anonymous patient information, and near real-time monitoring of adaptations of the virus. 

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This will be achieved through the use of the current MinION sequencer and the larger incoming GridION sequencer maintained by Dr Sam Robson and Angela Beckett, Specialist Research Technician, both from from the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth.

COG-UK is made up of an innovative partnership of NHS organisations, the four Public Health Agencies of the UK, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and over twelve academic partners providing sequencing and analysis capacity.

COG-UK is supported by £20 million funding from the UK Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Wellcome Trust, administered by UK Research and Innovation.

The virus genome data is combined with clinical and epidemiological datasets to help to guide UK public health interventions and policies. The subsequent analysis will permit evaluation of the effectiveness of novel treatments and non-pharmacological interventions on SARS-CoV-2 populations and spread. It will provide information on whether outbreaks are due to introductions from outside or ongoing transmission within the community. The data will also enable researchers to identify and understand genetic changes that affect how easily the virus is passed on and the severity of the symptoms it causes. Finally, the information helps us target the development of treatments and vaccines and monitor their impact as they are introduced.

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