With £2.5 million in funding from UK Research and Innovation, an arm of the government, the G2P-UK National Virology Consortium has been founded to study the threats posed by new SARS-CoV-2 variants increasingly cropping up across the world.
The effects of these mutations have yet to be fully known. Some may be more transmissible or cause more severe cases of COVID-19, and studies are needed to determine the effectiveness of existing vaccines and treatments on them. Led by professor Wendy Barclay of Imperial College London, the effort will unite virologists from 10 research institutions to work alongside the COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium and Public Health England.
“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,” Barclay said. “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.”
The virus has now been spreading for more than a year and is prevalent worldwide. This, Barclay noted, means the virus has entered a phase where it is constantly throwing up new mutations, which means constant evaluation is needed. Indeed, variations are a natural part of viral development. Not all make major changes, but some can supplant the original virus and change how it functions — or what affects it.
As a result, the consortium will identify the variants that pose the greatest risks and study them. They will also create standardized versions of SARS-CoV-2 with and without the various mutations to study each individually. From there, other teams will study how those variants alter virus proteins, the ability of virus variants to transmit by direct contact of airborne routes, their impact on disease severity, and whether mutations in the spike protein could allow the virus to escape the immune response created naturally, or by vaccines.
“One of the real strengths of the UK’s scientific response to the pandemic has been the way that researchers from all over the country have pooled their expertise to deliver big results, fast,” said Dame Ottoline Leyser, chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, which funded the study. “This new national consortium will study the effects of emerging variants on transmission, disease severity, and vaccine effectiveness – building on the work of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, which has been so effective in identifying new variants.”