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National consortium to study the threats of new SARS-CoV-2 variants

A new national research project to study the effects of emerging mutations in SARS-CoV-2 will be launched with £2.5 million of funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

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The ‘G2P-UK’ National Virology Consortium will study how mutations in the virus affect key outcomes such as how transmissible it is, the severity of COVID-19 it causes, and the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments.

The Consortium will bring together leading virologists from 10 research institutions including King's. They will work alongside the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which plays a world-leading role in virus genome sequencing, and Public Health England to boost the UK’s capacity to study newly identified virus variants and rapidly inform government policy.

The consortium is led by Professor Wendy Barclay, from Imperial College London, who said: “The UK has been fantastic in sequencing viral genomes and identifying new variants – now we have to better understand which mutations affect the virus in a way that might affect our control strategies. We are already working to determine the effects of the recent virus variants identified in the UK and South Africa and what that means for the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and vaccine effectiveness.

“Now the virus has circulated in humans for more than one year and is prevalent all around the world, we’re in a phase where the virus is constantly throwing up new variants and we need to gear up to assess the risk they pose, and to understand the mechanisms by which they act.”

Mutations in the virus’s genome occur naturally and some of these will be inconsequential, while others will change how it functions.

As new virus variants arise, the consortium will flag the riskiest variants, such as those associated with fast spreading virus clusters, to study. They will also create standardised versions of the virus with and without each mutation, so they can study the effects of each change individually.

Other teams in the consortium will then study how these new variants alter the virus proteins, particularly the key spike protein on the surface. This is important because changes to the spike protein can affect transmissibility and could potentially alter the effectiveness of vaccines and antibodies that target the protein.

The researchers will then use cell cultures and animal models to study if the virus mutations alter the immune response, virus transmissibility, the severity of the disease it causes, or the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments.

The researchers will study how readily the virus variants transmit by direct contact or airborne routes in animal models. They will also study the impact on disease severity, such as lung damage and breathing impairment, which correlate with symptoms typical of human COVID-19.

Additionally, they will determine whether mutations in the spike protein enable the virus to escape the immune response generated by either the vaccine or immune memory from earlier infection.

 

It’s really important for the strengths and breadth of UK virology to come together and develop an evidence-base to explain the biological impacts of viral variants, such as possible resistance to vaccine induced immunity, and inform how we should respond and plan for the future.– Professor Michael Malim, from the School of Immunology & Microbial Sciences, said:

By setting up a streamlined, coordinated and openly communicated programme, that operates across the UK to study the latest virus mutations simultaneously in several labs with complimentary experimental methods, the researchers aim to produce faster, reliable results to feed into public health policy and clinical practice.

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Michael  Malim

Michael Malim

Professor of Infectious Diseases