The University of Oxford and the Oxford University Hospitals (OUH) NHS FT have received a funding gift from the Red Avenue Foundation, to expand a major research programme aimed at rapidly identifying and interrogating emerging Covid-19 variants.
The funding will support a multidisciplinary team of scientists from the university and the OUH. It will allow them to analyse and identify new variants posing the greatest risk. This will enable vaccines to be deployed and tailored to the variants, ensuring that production is efficient.
Over the past two years, more research has been done to understand Covid-19 through the production of several licensed vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments.
But given that some coronaviruses have the potential to alter their proteins, evolve, and escape immune protection produced by vaccinations, or previous infection, herd immunity is reduced.
Part of the research will help spot and track the genetic changes that alter the virus's behaviour, to make the right interventions to control the disease. This will also include specially designed algorithms that reliably detect the presence of the offending genetic changes. Complex lab work will be carried out to demonstrate which and how genetic changes alter the behaviour of the virus.
Lead Researcher, Derrick Crook, Professor of Microbiology, in the Nuffield Department of Medicine at the University of Oxford, and Consultant of Infectious Diseases at OUH, said: “Firstly, we are establishing local sequencing of all SARS-CoV-2 strains in Oxford and working with others who are doing the same.
"Secondly, we are now working on substantially improved ways of taking the sequence from sequencing machines across the world and better reconstructing the genomes, revealing precisely and very rapidly the offending or new genetic changes.
"Thirdly, we hope to work out perfectly how a genetic change really alters the virus’s behaviour, identifying whether it escapes immune protection. This is going to enable us to process very large numbers of samples simultaneously and accurately.”
The funding will enable the research team to hire three additional postdoctoral researchers, considerably enhancing their capacity to investigate new variants as they arise.
Researchers will study the variants at the epidemiological, molecular, immunological, and structural level. They will also conduct ongoing surveillance of the virus within the Oxfordshire community, working closely with colleagues at Public Health England, to characterise new variants submitted to the UK from around the world.
This has already enabled the identification and characterisation of four variants with mutations that appear to have distinct selective advantages: the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta variants first detected in the UK, South Africa, Brazil, and India.
Denny Zhang, Chair of the Red Avenue Foundation, said: "It is our great honour to have the chance to support the NHS. We hope our efforts will help us all to overcome this difficult time together."