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Cambridge University Science Magazine
The Wellcome Sanger Institute and the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium are expanding their whole genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, thanks to an investment of £12.2 million from the Department for Health and Social Care Testing Innovation Fund. With this funding, researchers are aiming to establish a real-time genomic surveillance system for COVID-19, to better understand how it spreads and evolves over time.

At present, COG-UK has already generated and shared over 100,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes, contributing to the efforts of public health authorities to monitor and control the virus. The Wellcome Sanger Institute has played a central role in this endeavour, as the largest genome sequencing hub within the COG-UK Consortium. Using high-throughput sequencing techniques, researchers are able to process vast numbers of viral genomes, providing precise information about the genetic makeup of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Up-to-date viral genome sequencing data is vital to the COVID-19 response for a number of reasons. When a local outbreak is detected, it is important to establish whether it has been caused by transmission of single or multiple viral lineages; this can be identified by looking at patterns of mutation in the genomes of positive SARS-CoV-2 virus samples. It is also useful to know whether specific mutations influence factors such as disease severity.

Genomic surveillance will become particularly essential as new vaccines are deployed in the coming months, due to the possibility of mutations leading to resistance. Since viruses evolve so rapidly, they can mutate to escape from vaccines which were initially effective in preventing their spread. Tracking this process will enable researchers to identify key mutations as they happen, and respond accordingly.

Professor Sir Mike Stratton, Director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Our mission is to build a national real-time genomic surveillance system for COVID-19. Using genomics to track the SARS-CoV-2 virus in real time will help public health authorities detect and respond to local outbreaks faster and show us how the virus responds when new vaccines are introduced.”

It is hoped that SARS-CoV-2 genomic data can be linked with epidemiological, clinical and contact tracing records at a national scale in the near future, to establish an integrated dataset encompassing viral sequencing, host genomics, immunology, clinical outcomes and risk factors.

Zak Lakota-Baldwin is a 4th year History and Philosophy of Science undergraduate, and News Editor at BlueSci