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DNA double helix

Exeter genomics scientists to battle spread of coronavirus

Scientists and clinicians in Exeter are part of a £20 million investment to unlock the secrets of COVID-19. They will use the University’s state of the art equipment to ensure samples from Devon patients help to combat the disease.

Scientists at the University of Exeter and the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust (RD&E) are part of a group of the country’s leading institutions who are joining together to sequence the virus from patients throughout the UK.  By knowing the sequence it will be possible to know both how it is changing (or mutating) and also to map the spread of COVID-19.

The Government and the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser have today (Monday 23 March) announced the national consortium, which will provide breakthroughs that help the UK respond to this and future pandemics. The information will be key for stopping the virus spreading by informing the best strategies for reducing spread and also for future diagnostic tests and treatment.

COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium - comprised of the NHS, Public Health Agencies, Wellcome Sanger Institute, and numerous academic institutions - will deliver large-scale, rapid sequencing of the cause of the disease and share intelligence with hospitals, regional NHS centres and the Government.

Samples from patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 will be sent to a network of sequencing centres at Exeter, as well as Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford and Sheffield. These centres will liaise with the Wellcome Sanger Institute, near Cambridge: one of the world’s most advanced centres of genomes and data, to analyse the genetic code of COVID-19 samples circulating in the UK.

In Exeter, samples will come from infected sick patients admitted to the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital, using spare samples after all clinical testing is completed and the virus has been inactivated.

Ray Sheridan, the RD&E consultant looking after many Covid-19 patients, said: “Covid-19 is the single most important medical emergency our country has ever faced. I really believe that the combining the efforts of our NHS and universities across the country offers real benefit for patients. As a frontline clinician, this research effort gives me hope that I can pass on to patients. Every day that we can delay this virus from hitting its peak - by handwashing, isolation and social distancing - buys us more time to work on this crucial research.”

Dr Stephen Michell, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Microbiology at the University of Exeter, said: “The RD&E and the University of Exeter are building on our outstanding collaboration of scientists and clinicians to contribute to the global understanding of this devastating virus. The University has invested more than £3million pounds in state-of-the-art DNA sequencing supported by the Wellcome trust. This core facility is ideally placed to provide support from the South West towards this crucial national research consortium into Covid-19.  This collaboration will aid in the advancement of therapies and diagnostics.”

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: “At a critical moment in history, 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.

“As a Government we are working tirelessly to do all we can to fight COVID-19 to protect as many lives and save as many jobs as possible.”

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.”

This investment and the findings from the consortium will help prepare the UK and the world for future pandemics."

Date: 22 March 2020