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UK COVID-19 Sequencing Consortium Launches With £20M in Government, Wellcome Trust Funding

NEW YORK – A new UK research consortium unveiled Monday has obtained £20 million ($23.2 million) for sequencing-based studies of COVID-19 transmission and evolution of the virus that causes it.

The COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium includes the UK's National Health Service (NHS), public health agencies, and academic research institutions and is funded by NHS, Public Health England, UK Research and Innovation, and the Wellcome Trust.

"Samples from substantial numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19 will be whole-genome sequenced and, employing the Sanger Institute's expertise in genomics and surveillance of infectious diseases, our researchers will collaborate with other leading groups across the country to analyze the data generated and work out how coronavirus is spreading in the UK," Wellcome Sanger Institute Director Mike Stratton said in a statement. "This will inform national and international strategies to control the pandemic and prevent further spread."

Research centers in more than a dozen cities across the country will perform the sequencing. The Wellcome Sanger Institute will also provide sequencing capacity and additional support and will collaborate with groups to analyze the samples. Their results will be shared with hospitals, regional NHS centers, and the UK government.

Sharon Peacock, Chair of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge and director of the Public Health England National Infection Service will serve as consortium director; Ewan Harrison, of Cambridge's Department of Medicine, will serve as scientific project manager.

The consortium hopes sequencing will give healthcare providers and public policy makers an edge in responding to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. Sequencing the virus can "help guide treatments in the future and see the impact of interventions," UK Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said in a statement.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the UK has 5,683 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 281 deaths, as of March 23. Worldwide, nearly 300,000 people have been confirmed to have COVID-19 and 12,784 have died, according to a World Health Organization situation report issued March 21.

"The government's investment is well-timed to accelerate the pace of viral genome sequence production and ensure this information is openly available to epidemiologists and virologists worldwide," Nick Loman, a sequencing expert at the University of Birmingham who is participating in the consortium, said in a statement issued by the university. "This will provide an unprecedented real-time view of COVID-19 virus evolution."

The new consortium will use a next-generation sequencing protocol designed for use in infectious disease outbreaks developed by the University of Birmingham's Josh Quick, the university said. This method works with both Illumina and Oxford Nanopore Technologies sequencing platforms, Loman said.