COVID-19 genome sequencing

COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China in December in 2019. Since then, the coronavirus has spread across 170 countries and has officially been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation.

What does a coronavirus look like?

Coronaviruses were named as such due to the way the virus looks under a microscope. The particles are usually spherical, consisting of genetic material that is surrounded by an envelope and protein spikes. Their single-stranded RNA genomes are extraordinarily large, containing around 26,000-32,000 RNA letters. This family of viruses can replicate their RNA genomes through RNA-dependent RNA polymerases.

How does COVID-19 compare?

COVID-19 belongs to the coronavirus family, which can infect both humans and animals with diseases. Coronaviruses usually infect their host with a mild illness; the common cold, for example. However, certain coronaviruses cause more severe illness, such as bronchitis and pneumonia. COVID-19 is a particularly harmful virus.

Genomic analysis has suggested that this particular type of coronavirus is mutating slowly, which reduces the chances of it becoming more deadly.

COVID-19 whole-genome sequencing alliance

COG-UK (COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium) consists of Public Health Agencies, the NHS, Wellcome Sanger Institute and academic institutions. These groups are currently collaborating to map the spread and evolution of COVID-19, making use of whole-genome sequencing. On 23rd March, the consortium was backed by both the government and the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor.

What is whole-genome sequencing?

Whole-genome sequencing is the process used to determine the complete DNA sequence of a particular organism’s genome. The approach for sequencing the latest coronavirus involves obtaining samples from patients that have had been confirmed of hosting the virus and sending these samples to a sequencing centre. The network of centres are located in:

  • Birmingham
  • Cambridge
  • Belfast
  • Cardiff
  • Exeter
  • Edinburgh
  • Glasgow
  • Liverpool
  • Norwich
  • London
  • Nottingham
  • Sheffield
  • Oxford

Whole-genome sequencing and COVID-19

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, has stated that: “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 whole-genome sequencing alliance, which has seen a £20 million investment, will assist in revealing transmission chains. Once these chains are understood, plans can be made to break them to stop the outbreak.

Additionally, whole-genome sequencing will showcase how this coronavirus adapts to its human host and the impact of drug treatments and vaccines through monitoring the virus on a national scale.

Additional learnings from studying coronavirus’ unique genetic code

Scientists at the University of Liverpool, who have also joined the Whole-Genome Sequencing Alliance have explained that understanding the unique genetic code taken from individuals samples of infected patients will allow them to understand:

  • Who is becoming ill
  • The type of illness they have, and why
  • Whether COVID-19 caused the illness
  • Whether the patient's immune system is over-responding

An additional aim is to understand not only how the virus is spreading, but also whether different strains are beginning to emerge.

Scientists at the University of Liverpool can carry out sequencing of both the coronavirus and the respiratory microbiome in just eight hours.

What are the next steps?

Learnings from the sequencing process can be shared quickly with decision-makers, thanks to the different organisations involved. Not only will this research enable the UK, and the rest of the world, to respond to COVID-19, it will assist in response to any future pandemics.

Short-term benefits of the alliance will involve helping direct clinical patient care, working to save lives.

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