It has been more than a year that the world suffers from the coronavirus. After the first killer wave, we thought that it was over. However, the infectious disease seems to bounce back. In this blog, we are discussing UK researchers who study genomic sequencing to investigate rare coronavirus variants.
To fight this seemingly ‘unstoppable’ virus, there have been many efforts undergoing worldwide. Scientists, doctors, and governments have joined hands to figure out different solutions to this disastrous pandemic.
One such effort is the UK-based scientists pledge to discover COVID-19 mutations to help find ways to prevent the disease.
The deadly virus has affected around 127 million people worldwide. The total number of casualties caused by the COVID-19 is 2.78 million as of March 2021.
What the UK scientists plan to do?
The UK has been one of the most suffered countries by the Covid-19. The total number of cases recorded is more than 4.33 million. In contrast, the virus has killed more than 127,000 citizens to date.
In the wake of the current situation, Sharon Peacock, a Cambridge University microbiologist, decided to study the genetic makeover of the insidious virus. According to the professor, examining the genetic mutation of the coronavirus is important. It is because it can help in controlling and tracking the virus. It will also prove useful for making vaccines for disease prevention.
“It’s vital so that we can understand what variants are circulating, both in the United Kingdom and around the world, and therefore the implications of that on vaccine development and the way that we may have to adapt vaccines,” Peacock says.
The professor, along with her coworkers, started working to achieve this goal. The English government provided $36.1 million to support this cause.
This cause highlighted the UK for its efforts in the combat against the virus. The professor and her team have successfully analyzed above 40 percent of the COVID-19 genetic makeups (sequences) to this day.
Currently, the professor and her team are looking for new and more dangerous variants of COVID-19. These variants are said to be vaccine-resistant. If they succeed in this mission, they will help researchers develop new vaccines or make necessary amendments to the previously formulated vaccines.
Commenting on the efforts of Ms. Peacock, the chairperson at Scripps Research, CA, Dr. Eric Topol said she is pioneering a novel and useful technique.
What Genomic Sequencing is?
This is a relatively new technique. Genomic sequencing includes mapping the distinctive genetic makeover of different organisms. In the case of COVID-19, genomic sequencing studies the unique hereditary makeup of the virus.
Consider it the study of the base on which the foundation of the virus is built.
Researchers use this method to analyze everything from food poisoning outbreaks to flu viruses and even cancer.
This has been the first time in history that scientists are applying this technique to study a virus that has affected populations globally.
Who is Ms. Sharon Peacock
Professor Sharon Peacock is the chair of this new study. The 62-years-old microbiologist is the chair and executive director of the COG-UK (COVID-19 UK Genomics Consortium). She created this association last year.
How COG-UK Works
At the beginning of this month, the group studied about 13,171 viruses, according to a weekly report published on the Consortium web portal. This number has increased by 260 as compared to the last year.
This development is the linkage between the genomic sequencing sciences with the UK’s national healthcare system.
The confirmed UK coronavirus cases from medical institutions and COVID-19 testing laboratories are distributed to the 17 specialized laboratories. Scientists study the samples at these laboratories. Moreover, they extract the genetic information from each of the swabs provided for analysis. Then, attempts are made to identify the unique genetic code from each of them.
Performing cross-referencing of these codes is the next step. This information is tallied with the public data gathered.
The purpose of this practice is to figure out important questions about the spread of the virus. The correspondence between the virus mutations with a strange increase in the coronavirus attacks hints at a new strain in the region.
The importance of genomic sequencing was realized last year when the number of coronavirus-affected cases rose in southeastern Britain. Despite the strict lockdown rules, when the number of cases continued to spike, health officials felt alarmed about this.
After sieving out the data gathered, researchers discovered a new strain. This new variant included many mutations. Consequently, this fact made the spread of this virus strain (even) easier.
After the revelation, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, implemented a countrywide lockdown.
The scientific investigation is crucial. But it is not an easy task. Therefore, experts have to sift through the genetic makeup of hundreds of innocuous variants to identify the infrequent culprits.
From National to the International Level
This initiative of the UK has become an international effort now. More than 120 countries are submitting genetic makeups to GISAID. This was a data-sharing platform that was created to record influenza cases initially.
Denmark has been the fastest to study genomic sequencing. While Iceland, New Zealand, and Australia are also sequencing a larger percentage of coronavirus cases than the UK. What makes the UK the leader is interesting to note.
The UK collaborative efforts in sequencing are considered of higher value. It is because of the size of the country and the number of cases reported every day.
According to the GISAID database, the country has submitted more than 379,294 cases. This is almost half of the total coronavirus cases submitted there. The total number of submitted cases to GISAID is 898,000.
Experts think the UK’s setup for genomic sequencing investigation is the best. The structure used is systematic and more organized, making the studies easier for the scientists.
Furthermore, America is also inspired by these efforts. The new administration of the US has reversed the anti-science policies implemented earlier. This is a great move because it can help grow the efforts to analyze genomic sequencing.
The COG-UK group collaborates with the US scientists at the Rockefeller Foundation to help them expand their sequencing capacity.
What is Behind the Sequencing Success
Behind the success of the UK, researchers are the fact that the country has more research and data available on advanced genomic sequencing methods. The chemical structure of the DNA was first discovered by UK-based scientists including James Watson, Rosalind Franklin, and Francis Crick.
In addition, other researchers help in creating basic sequencing techniques and the technology involved that reduce the cost and time involved in this process.
These successes get scientists’ funding. For instance, the Wellcome’s Trust 1992 for developing a new center for genome mapping. This investment added to the pool of the country’s expertise. Besides, the country’s National Health Service provides data for investigators to study and discover.
However, the efforts of Ms. Peacock cannot be denied, her coworkers think. Being a humble person, she likes to highlight the works of others.
Ms. Sharon Peacock has great organizing skills. She gathered DNA investigators from all over the country through chatrooms and goodwill. Later, she united all the eminent scientists. Lastly, she persuaded them to come forward and play their role in the COVID-19 combat, commented Andrew Page. He is a research fellow at COG-UK.
Sharon Peacock’s contributions made her popular among scientists. She is given an honorary name as the ‘Variant-hunter-in-chief.’ But she prefers staying low profile.
A Bit on the Genome Sciences
Interested in studying what genome science is? Genome scientists examine all of a human being’s genes. This includes the interaction of the genes together as well as (the human being’s) environment.
Scientists can analyze DNA sequencing to look for genetic varieties and mutations that can play a role in spreading disease. The change that causes diseases can be as minute as the deletion, addition, or substitution of a single founding pair or as major as the deletion of millions of pairs.
It is also important to study genetic sequencing for assessing various genetic functions in a human body.
Some of the advanced methods involved in genomic studies include:
- Nanopore DNA sequencing
- Polony Sequencing
- Massively Parallel Signature Sequencing (MPSS)
- Single-Molecule Real-Time Sequencing (SMRT)
- Solexa Sequencing
- SOLiD Sequencing and many more.
The Bottom Line
In short, genomic science is an advanced method that can help identify the root cause. The UK scientists began taking advantage of this method in the wake of the coronavirus. Supported by the government, the scientists succeeded in attaining their objective.
To date, they have studied the largest number of coronavirus variants as compared to others. And this is considered a big achievement. The mastermind behind this idea of genome sequencing was a Cambridge University professor, Sharon Peacock. She persuaded many eminent researchers to contribute with her.
Her efforts aimed at helping control the spread of the deadly virus across the globe. Sharon Peacock expresses her intentions in these words:
“I consider myself, first and foremost a scientist that’s doing their best to try and help both the population in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to control the pandemic,” she said. “Perhaps there’s a better phrase for that, but scientists will do it.“