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Illumina, UK Agencies Partner on £28M Sequencing Study of COVID-19 Patients

NEW YORK – Several UK agencies have committed £28 million ($34.4 million) to obtain whole-genome sequences of 35,000 patients affected by COVID-19.

Genomics England, the UK NHS, the Genetics of Mortality in Critical Care (GenOMICC) study consortium, and Illumina are partnering to study how genes affect a patient's response to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The consortium will sequence up to 20,000 genomes from patients currently or previously in intensive care due to the coronavirus and up to 15,000 patients who had mild or moderate symptoms. Illumina will perform all the sequencing at its Cambridge, UK labs.

UK Research and Innovation, the Department of Health and Social Care, and the National Institute for Health Research are funding the study along with Genomics England. Illumina is providing an undisclosed in-kind contribution.

"Our genes play a role in determining who becomes desperately sick with infections like COVID-19," Kenneth Baillie, a clinical research fellow at the University of Edinburgh and the GenOMICC study's lead investigator, said in a statement. "We are excited to work with Genomics England to tackle this new and complex disease… By combining the genome with rich clinical characteristics and comparing those who become severely ill with those that experience a much milder illness, the consortium hopes to gain new insights into how the virus affects us."

The patient sequencing study will complement efforts of the COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium (COG-UK) already underway to sequence the SARS-CoV-2 genome in infected patients led by Public Health England and the Sanger Institute. That effort received £20 million from the UK government and the Wellcome Trust.

"In COG-UK we have already sequenced over 10,000 virus genomes from patients with COVID-19," study director and University of Cambridge Professor Sharon Peacock said in a statement. "Linking this data to the patient's own genome data in the Genomics England-GenOMICC study may provide unique insights into how the patient and virus genomes act together to influence the patient's response to the infection and will help inform and improve our response to future outbreaks."

This new study is the latest effort between longtime partners Illumina and Genomics England. Illumina became a key partner for the 100,000 Genomes Project in 2014 and in January the organizations announced a deal for Illumina to sequence 300,000 patients to support diagnosis and inform treatment.

Officials involved with the study expressed hope that whole-genome sequencing might also help in the search for COVID-19 treatments. "By discovering why some people are predisposed to developing life-threatening symptoms, the consortium will be able to identify treatments which have the best chance of success in clinical trials, and potentially identify people at extreme risk if they develop COVID-19," Baillie said.