Portsmouth researchers played vital role in UK response to COVID-19

Person wearing blue gloves conducting covid-19 testing

The researchers analysed the genetic code of the virus and tracked its spread across the country as it changes and mutates.

  • 18 February 2022
  • 3 min read

A new report has found that researchers from the University of Portsmouth, in collaboration with Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust, played a vital role in the UK’s response to COVID-19.

They were part of the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium, which has recently been shown to have made a significant and valuable contribution to the UK’s public health genomics landscape, according to an independent evaluation by the not-for-profit institute RAND Europe.

The report found that the consortium’s efforts to sequence and understand the diverse variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, have been key to informing public health decision-making and efforts to control its spread.

During the evaluation period, COG-UK sequenced more than 800,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes across the UK. The total is now nearing 2 million. Such sequencing data and associated research and analyses have helped identify variants of concern and increased knowledge about viral behaviour, transmissibility and spread. In addition, this has helped to inform design of vaccines, as well as having a direct impact on diverse public health measures.

Dr Sam Robson

My team and I have been proud to be a part of the COG-UK Consortium, and use our expertise to have a positive impact on the pandemic. We have worked directly with NHS Trusts across the South coast, in particular Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust, to help monitor and understand the spread of the virus in hospitals and across the region. The resources and expertise available at the University of Portsmouth have provided a significant input to this valuable research.

Dr Sam Robson, Centre for Enzyme Innovation

The Portsmouth researchers from the Faculty of Science and Health, led by Dr Sam Robson from the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI), analysed the genetic code of the virus and tracked its spread across the country as it changes and mutates. They also provided information on whether or not outbreaks are due to introductions from outside or ongoing transmission within the community and the effects of Public Health responses such as social distancing. Ultimately the team provided significant resources in the development of potential treatments and vaccines.

Dr Robson said: “My team and I have been proud to be a part of the COG-UK Consortium, and use our expertise to have a positive impact on the pandemic. We have worked directly with NHS Trusts across the South coast, in particular Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust, to help monitor and understand the spread of the virus in hospitals and across the region. The resources and expertise available at the University of Portsmouth have provided a significant input to this valuable research.”

“The work of experts in the field of pathogen genomics that are part of COG-UK has underpinned key sequencing and research efforts,” said Sonja Marjanovic, lead author and director of healthcare innovation at RAND Europe. “This helped policymakers understand SARS-CoV-2 behaviour better, such as links between new variants and disease severity, and also informed policies related to border control, travel, lockdown and social distancing across the four nations of the UK.”

The consortium’s pathogen sequencing has also contributed to decision-making in local settings, such as hospitals, care homes and universities, by helping to understand sources of outbreaks and transmission patterns and by informing infection prevention and control.

Tom Ling, report author and head of evaluation at RAND Europe

“The consortium’s pathogen sequencing has also contributed to decision-making in local settings, such as hospitals, care homes and universities, by helping to understand sources of outbreaks and transmission patterns and by informing infection prevention and control,” said Tom Ling, report author and head of evaluation at RAND Europe.

The study evaluated the progress, evolution and impacts of COG-UK, a collaboration of experts in pathogen genomics established soon after the UK went into its first lockdown in March 2020. It includes academic institutions, the four public health agencies of the UK, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, National Health Service (NHS) Trusts and Lighthouse Labs.

Professor Sharon Peacock, executive director and chair of COG-UK, said: “Commissioning an independent evaluation of COG-UK was vital both in terms of accountability for the public money invested in the consortium and also in ensuring that we learn from what worked, and what could have been improved, to maximise the legacy of the endeavour and achievement of all involved.”