As part of the global effort to combat Covid-19, the UK is set to offer its world-leading genomics expertise to countries without the same capabilities and resources in order to help identify new variants of the virus.
Announced as part of a speech by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, countries will be offered UK capacity to analyse new strains of the virus through the launch of the New Variant Assessment Platform, which is set to be led by Public Health England (PHE), working with NHS Test and Trace and academic partners, as well as the World Health Organisation’s SARS-CoV-2 Global Laboratory Working Group.
In due course, the platform will be led by the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) and will involve PHE laboratories and staff, as well as academic partner capabilities.
They will work directly on samples provided from abroad, or will provide expert advice and remote support where the partner country already has some capabilities in genomics but requests further assistance.
The offer could also include training and resources, as well as personnel and equipment.
Countries will be able to apply for assistance by contacting the World Health Organisation, where an existing channel with the UK does not yet exist.
With vaccine delivery underway and a greater scientific understanding of the main Covid-19 strain, variants and mutations of the virus present the new unknown. As such, swiftly identifying any which may develop and present themselves around the world is vital to keep the global medical community one step ahead.
Mr Hancock 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 neighbours, but the health of people across the world.
“The new variants of coronavirus have demonstrated this once again 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 UK has carried out more than half of all SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences submitted to the global database, and this capability helped PHE’s scientists identify the variant in Kent, informing new measures to tackle the spread of the virus.
Dr Isabel Oliver, Director of Public Health England’s National Infection Service, added: “We know that the virus will evolve over time and certain mutations could potentially cause the virus to spread faster, make people sicker, or possibly affect how well vaccines work.
“Genomic testing is crucial to our efforts to control the virus – it allows us to keep an eye on how the virus is changing and to respond before it’s too late.
“This new initiative will bring Public Health England’s cutting-edge science to countries that have little or no ability to sequence and analyse Covid-19 virus strains themselves. It will also give us crucial early warning of new variants emerging around the world that might endanger the UK.”