UK Offers Genomics Expertise to Help Nations ID New SARS-CoV-2 Variants

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On Tuesday, the U.K. offered its genomics expertise to identify emerging variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to countries that lack the resources to make such identifications. The offer came as part of the U.K.’s ascendency as president of the G7 for 2021 and is a key point in its G7 plan to assure healthcare for all.

The program, dubbed the New Variant Assessment Platform, is promoted as a way to provide the U.K. and the world with an early warning system for emerging strains that could result in a new pandemic and further endanger global health.

“New variants of coronavirus can be threats to the progress made so far with treatments and vaccines, so it is vital that the global community is able to react to them quickly and decisively,” Isabel Oliver, director of Public Health England’s (PHE’s) National Infection Service, said in a statement.

Since the pandemic began, the U.K. has carried out more than half of all SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences submitted to the global database.

The New Variant Assessment Platform will operate under the auspices of Public Health England, working with the National Health Service (NHS) Test and Trace program and academic partners, as well as the World Health Organization’s SARS-CoV-2 Global Laboratory Working Group. Researchers will work directly on virus samples provided by other nations that lack genomic sequencing expertise, or will provide remote advice and support – including providing training, resources, personnel, and equipment – to partner countries that have some genomic sequencing capabilities but request assistance.

Countries may apply for help through their existing channels with the U.K. government or, if no channel exists, by contacting the World Health Organization.

In a preview of the speech U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock is set to deliver at Chatham House, an independent U.K. policy institute, he said, “This pandemic has shown that the foundations of so many of the exciting experiences that make life worth living are contingent not just on our health or the health of our neighbors, but the health of people across the world…so we must work to promote health security right across the world.

“Our New Variant Assessment Platform will help us better understand this virus and how it spreads and will also boost global capacity to understand coronavirus so we’re all better prepared for whatever lies ahead.”

The plan dovetails with the Chatham House Sustainable Laboratories Initiative, announced in 2019. Focusing on global health security through cooperative threat reduction efforts, that initiative provides sophisticated laboratories to mitigate biological threats and aims to enhance countries’ internal capabilities to detect, diagnose and store high-consequence pathogen.

The need for global access to genomic sequencing capabilities is exacerbated by the emergence of new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil.

The variant recently discovered in Kent, for example, appears to spread 30% to 70% more easily than the initial version of the virus. And, as Hancock noted, “Based on analysis conducted by academic colleagues in a variety of studies, there is a realistic possibility that this variant may be associated with increased mortality….

“This reinforces the critical message that we must be cautious,” he said.

Currently, all of the U.K. is under mandatory stay-at-home orders. All travel corridors into England are closed, and travelers who arrived before the January 18 closure were told to self-isolate even if they tested negative for COVID-19.

In a briefing to Downing Street on Monday, Hancock noted that for the past week, “We have seen 37,258 cases of coronavirus, on average, each day. The NHS is still under intense pressure across all parts of the country, with 37,899 people in U.K. hospitals with COVID-19…(including) 4,076 on ventilators. We’re on track to offer everyone in the top 4 priority groups a jab by the 15 February,” and already have administered vaccines to 6.6 million people.

Globally, there’s some concern as to the effectiveness of those vaccines against new variants. Although companies say their vaccines appear effective against new variants, Moderna is developing a third “booster” dose to protect against those variants “out of an abundance of caution.” Pfizer and BioNTech pre-published data on bioRxiv indicating that their vaccine is effective against the UK strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but noted that more research is needed.

As Hancock laid out his priorities for the U.K.’s G7 presidency this year, he emphasized health security for all. “Given the experience that we’ve had across the West, it’s absolutely vital that G7 members come together to provide the international leadership that people look to us for.

“After all, the G7 represents two-thirds of the global pharmaceutical market, the majority of the world’s genomic capability and leads the world in life sciences and clinical trials.”

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