UK Scientists Launch Genomic Surveillance System for Respiratory Viruses
Genomic Surveillance
Lineage tree of Sars-CoV-2 strains according to genomic sequencing data.

British scientists have launched a new initiative to expand the sequencing of common seasonal respiratory viruses with the aim of developing an early warning system for new viral threats and help prevent future pandemics.  

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, labs around the world were sequencing tens of thousands of Sars-CoV-2 genomes a day. The data being shared from around the world allowed health authorities to keep pace with the evolution of the virus responsible for causing COVID-19, and identify where the next threat was coming from. 

The Respiratory Virus and Microbiome Initiative launched on Tuesday by researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute aims to build on these lessons. The project, run in collaboration with the UK Health Security Agency and other scientists, will track and sequence the evolution of respiratory virus pathogens like SARS-Cov-2, as well as other coronaviruses, flu families, and respiratory syncytial viruses (RSV) in order to establish a what it calls a “large-scale genomic surveillance system for respiratory viruses.” 

“It comes out of the simple idea that what we’ve done for Covid, we should now be doing for all respiratory viruses because if we can establish a better understanding of these viruses, we can be in a better place to understand their transmission and how to develop vaccines against them,” Dr Ewan Harrison, who is leading the initiative, told the Guardian.

Viral genome sequencing expanded significantly during the pandemic. The public release of the Sars-CoV-2 sequence by Chinese scientists in January 2020 allowed the world to start developing diagnostics and vaccines within days, saving millions of lives. To date, scientists have shared millions of Sars-CoV-2 sequences on public databases.

Influenza has attracted a lot of research interest over the years. However, many other respiratory bugs, like rhinovirus or adenovirus, are poorly monitored, leading to a gap in scientific understanding of their transmission dynamics.  By providing large amounts of data for academics and public health officials to use in their work, the program hopes to “supercharge” research efforts to fill these blind spots and improve scientific understanding of the particular characteristics of individual strains that make up respiratory virus families.

“Understanding which specific strains of each virus is causing disease in patients, and if there are multiple strains or multiple viruses present at any one time will hugely change our understanding of how viruses lead to disease, which viruses tend to coexist, and the severity of disease caused by each virus,” said Dr Catherine Hyams, an expert in respiratory viruses at the University of Bristol.

If the program succeeds, it could provide a blueprint for other countries to implement as part of their pandemic preparedness strategies – and become a cornerstone of global defenses against viral threats in the future.

Image Credits: MinMaj.

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