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Genomics in an age of COVID-19

18 May 2020
By Chris Wigley
CEO of Genomics England
Appeared in BioNews 1047

COVID-19 has caused unprecedented levels of damage and disruption to the global population and economy, with no current cure or vaccine to prevent it. Five months after the virus began to spread, there are still many questions that need to be answered:

  • Why do some people become severely ill and need hospitalisation, while others only have mild symptoms or are even completely asymptomatic?

  • Why does the virus affect some people's lungs, but other people's kidneys?

  • Why is there an apparent ethnic disparity in survival rates?

There have been many studies which have established that the elderly and those with underlying health issues are more vulnerable, but there have also been cases of otherwise unexplained severe symptoms – whether they are young, fit people, or members of ethnic minority communities with no known health issues. Those studies can't explain such variations in symptoms at an individual level and why, on the other end of the spectrum, there are 'super survivors' like Maria Branyas, the 113-year-old woman in Spain who beat COVID-19 against all odds.

However, by comparing the genetic make-up of those who have been admitted to intensive care with those who have not been as badly affected, we may be able to work out how genetics influence people's responses to COVID-19, and if targeted treatments may be useful for individuals. What's more, by combining genomic data – and the insights gained from it – with other types of data such as clinical, demographic, or transport data, we would be able to identify the individuals and areas most at risk. This would allow us to manage the pandemic differently, potentially isolating small pockets of the population, rather than entire nations; supporting the reinvigorating of the global economy.

For this reason, Genomics England, the University of Edinburgh, the NHS, and Illumina have come together to sequence the whole genomes of up to 20,000 intensive care patients with COVID-19, and up to 15,000 people with mild/moderate symptoms of the illness. Working with the Genetics of Mortality in Critical Care (GenOMICC) consortium, led by Dr Kenneth Baillie at Edinburgh University, we will be able to reach patients in 170 intensive care units across the country (see BioNews 1047). We are currently also exploring a number of channels which will help us reach those who only suffered mild symptoms, or were asymptomatic.

I truly believe this study will dramatically improve our understanding of this devastating disease and will support our response in the next chapter of the coronavirus pandemic. There's no magic solution to fix COVID-19, but this will be an enormous step forward. I am extremely proud to be part of this partnership which will allow us to build an infrastructure to learn faster, find new therapies, protect the vulnerable, avert economic crises, and ultimately save lives.

So far, we have enrolled over 2000 patients, but we need more people who have suffered with both mild and severe symptoms, from all over the UK, to ensure we have as wide a view as possible. So please, help us turn the tables on COVID-19. If you have tested positive for the virus – or know someone who has – please visit Genomics England to register interest in joining this study.

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