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Northumbria University joins national genome sequencing alliance to map spread of COVID-19

19th May 2020

Scientists at Northumbria University, Newcastle, have joined a research consortium backed by the UK government to help fight COVID-19.

The Government and the UK’s scientific community have backed the UK’s leading clinicians and scientists to map how COVID-19 spreads and evolves using whole-genome sequencing.

Through a £20 million investment, the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) is looking for breakthroughs that could help the UK respond to this, future pandemics, and save lives.

The consortium brings together expert groups across the country to deliver large scale, rapid sequencing of the cause of the disease. Scientists and clinicians are analysing the genetic code of the COVID-19 virus circulating in the UK and in doing so, will give public health agencies, hospitals, regional NHS centres and the government unique, cutting-edge intelligence to combat the disease.

Led by Professor Sharon Peacock, Director of the National Infection Service, Public Health England, and Chair of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge, the group of experts comprises the NHS, Public Health Agencies, Wellcome Sanger Institute and numerous academic institutions – including Northumbria University.

Work to rapidly sequence whole genomes of the COVID-19 viruses is already underway at Northumbria, where a team led by Dr Darren Smith, Associate Professor in Phage Biology, has deployed NU-OMICS, the University’s state-of-the-art DNA sequencing research facility, to assist in the national effort to combat the disease.

Dr Smith, along with Dr Andrew Nelson, Dr Matthew Bashton, Dr Gregory Young and the wider project team are working in partnership with NHS Trusts to enable Northumbria to act as a hub for sample surveillance and outbreak monitoring for the North of England over the next 12 months.

By looking at the entire genome of the virus in confirmed cases of COVID-19 patients, scientists and clinicians can begin to understand is the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and monitor changes within its genome on a regional and national scale.

Dr Smith, Director of NU-OMICS said: “We welcome our addition as the northern England hub for the COG-UK consortium. The power to understand the spread and genome change of SARS-CoV-2 over the timeline of the pandemic is extremely important. This data supports national surveillance but importantly it can be aligned to research questions being asked by the northern NHS Trusts that we hope will support the fight against this novel and devastating virus.”

The consortium network of sequencing centres currently includes Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Northumbria, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford, Portsmouth and Sheffield.

Professor Sharon Peacock, Director of the National Infection Service, Public Health England, said: “This virus is one of the biggest threats our nation has faced in recent times and crucial to helping us fight it is understanding how it is spreading. Harnessing innovative genome technologies will help us tease apart the complex picture of coronavirus spread in the UK, and rapidly evaluate ways to reduce the impact of this disease on our society.”

The COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium team at Northumbria University includes: Dr Darren Smith, Dr Andrew Nelson, Dr Matthew Bashton, Dr Gregory Young, Dr Josh Loh, Dr John Allan, Dr Mohammed Adnan Tariq (Quadram Institute), Dr Giles Holt (Newcastle University), Professor Gary Black and Dr Lynn Dover.

Northumbria’s NU-OMICS DNA sequencing facility delivers a wide range of genome sequencing projects from Microbiome studies - helping to capture a snap shot of bacterial, fungal and viral communities in clinical and environmental studies, through to genome sequencing of bacteria, virus and fungal species. To find out more and enquire about this service, please visit our NU-OMICS webpage.

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