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£20m genome sequencing effort launched to map Covid-19

A country-wide collaboration between clinicians and researchers aims to inform disease response

A nationwide consortium of clinicians and scientists is embarking on a £20 million genome-sequencing quest to map how Covid-19 spreads.

“Genomic sequencing will help us understand Covid-19 and its spread,” said government chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance. “It can also help guide treatments in the future and see the impact of interventions.”

The consortium is comprised of the National Health Service, public health agencies, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and a number of academic institutions, with the money coming from the Wellcome Trust, UK Research and Innovation, and the Government Office for Science.

As part of the effort, samples from patients who test positive will be sent to a network of sequencing centres in Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford and Sheffield.

The Sanger Institute will work with those centres to analyse the samples.

“Our researchers will collaborate with other leading groups across the country to analyse the data generated and work out how coronavirus is spreading in the UK,” said Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

In addition to mapping how the virus is spreading, the genetic code of samples circulating in the UK should also allow researchers to monitor changes in the virus and see whether different strains are emerging.

“Rapid genome sequencing of Covid-19 will give us unparalleled insights into the spread, distribution and scale of the epidemic in the UK,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust.

Alok Sharma, the business secretary, said that “this new consortium will bring together the UK’s brightest and best scientists to build our understanding of this pandemic, tackle the disease and ultimately, save lives”.