One British laboratory's race to track the coronavirus

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

  • Video report by ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke

Today, the government pledged £20m towards COVID-19 research including a new network of leading genetics institutions to trace the evolution of the pandemic in real time.

At the Medical Research Council’s Centre for Virus Research (CVR) in Glasgow, each new sample of coronavirus they receive is another fragment of evidence in their effort to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

A sample of virus from each of Scotland’s 400 plus cases is brought here. It’s taken to their high containment “Category 3” lab — one of the few in the country licensed to handle pathogens as dangerous as SARS-CoV-2.

It’s here they extract the genetic code of the virus — a short strand of RNA, the molecular cousin of DNA. Once that’s step is complete the virus is inactive and the sample is passed on to their sequencing lab to be decoded.

And its the code that promises to bring crucial insights to fighting the pandemic.

Each time a virus spreads from one person to the next it mutates slightly, the changes allow virologists to rapidly sort viruses into family trees.

By tracing the virus’s relatives, you can tell where the virus came from.

In Scotland, they’ve used this data to show the origin of each of the country’s initial cases. Some from China, others from Italy or England.

They are now tracking how those viruses are leading to new clusters within Scotland.

ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke has visited the lab in Glasgow.

As the outbreak continues “real time” sequencing of each new case’s genetic code could be a powerful tool for control, explains Emma Thomson, a virologist at the University of Glasgow and a consultant in infectious diseases.

An outbreak in a hospital for example could be investigated to see whether it was caused by an individual in the hospital, or coming from outside. I can help show whether a doctor was infected at work, or at home — crucial for knowing if infection control systems are up to scratch.

And the team at the CVR aren’t working in isolation. Today the CVR joined 12 other centres forming part of the COVID-19 Genomics Consortium. Among them, the UKs most powerful gene sequencing hub, the Wellcome Sanger Institute near Cambridge.

By coordinating their work they hope to be able to investigate how clusters of the disease are spreading, whether the virus is mutating, but also, why some people are more vulnerable to infection than others.

Tests are ongoing to track Covid-19.

Researchers in public health laboratories around the are uploading their viral genomes to shared databases like this one, where the natural history of the global pandemic is being recorded, almost in real time.

Such information could be essential in understanding how different control methods in different countries are working. For example, as more health authorities start experimenting with anti-viral drugs it could serve as an early warning system for whether the virus is evolving resistance and where that is happening.

But it will only help stop an outbreak if this information is matched with action on the front line, to test, trace and treat people with the infection.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know