The UK’s coronavirus record has been mixed at best. But one area in which the country has unquestionably excelled is in the identification of new coronavirus variants. Even one of the government’s fiercest critics, former N0 10 adviser Dominic Cummings, picked out this kind of virus hunting as an area of science in which the country was “a superpower”, when speaking to the science and technology select committee in March.
In April 2020, the start of the UK’s first lockdown, the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) was established to sequence and analyse SARS-CoV-2 genomes. The group was made up of a dozen academic institutions, the UK’s four public health agencies for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which conducts genome research.
“We were very fortunate to get funding from the government, through Patrick Vallance,” Sharon Peacock, professor of public health and microbiology at Cambridge University and director of COG-UK, tells Spotlight. The initiative has been a huge success. In January of this year, over one million coronavirus genomes had been shared internationally with the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), the primary tool for scientific data-sharing on Covid-19. Almost half of those, 45 per cent, had been identified in the UK.
The “genomic surveillance” COG-UK is engaged in is crucial in the fight against the coronavirus. It allows researchers to ascertain routes of transmission, look at how different variants behave, monitor the outbreak of immune escape variants, and, crucially, develop vaccines. “There will be a time when we are thinking about this in the same way that we do flu,” Peacock explains. “That is, whenever it’s required, we’ll ask what vaccine will give us the greater coverage for that year, for whatever time frame or region.” The key to that is identifying dominant strains and mutations and targeting them with the correctly modified vaccine.
Peacock is also engaged in work with other genomics researchers, trying to unlock the causes behind the massive differential reactions in patients, spanning from symptomless or mild illness to ventilator treatment and death, or to the protracted misery of long Covid. “We’re working together with Health Data Research UK and Genomics England,” says Peacock. “We’re linking the human genome, and the viral genome and detailed health informatics data [for] a much, much deeper analysis.”
An extraordinarily difficult year for the country has not precluded astounding success in some areas. The vaccine roll-out has been the fastest of any large nation, and years of publicly funded research into pioneering technology and the life sciences meant the UK was able to quickly develop its own jab, one that will be sold relatively cheaply across the world. The NHS has been heavily stretched, but unlike in other areas of the continent, neither ICU beds nor ventilators reached their full capacity (although this is largely due to a rapid expansion of available critical care spaces and the cancellation of elective treatments that now leaves the service with record waiting lists). And while the UK suffered one of the worst death rates (13th highest in Europe and 18th in the world), and endured many months of lockdown, the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths seems to have been severely weakened.
Genomics research has been instrumental to a lot of what the UK got right in its fight against the coronavirus. It has sharpened the world’s understanding of SARS-CoV-2 in ways that will reverberate through generations, and needs to be nurtured and bolstered for many years to come.