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

The University of Liverpool is part of a new national research project to study the effects of emerging mutations in SARS-CoV-2.

Supported by £2.5 million funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), 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 the University of Liverpool. 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.”

The Liverpool work will be led by Professor Julian Hiscox and Professor James Stewart at the Institute of Infection, Veterinary and Ecological Sciences.

“Our role is to use our expertise in growing SARS-CoV-2 from clinical samples and in animal models to investigate variants of the virus using transcriptomics and proteomics and the models we have developed in collaboration with other partners in G2P-UK,” commented Professor Hiscox.

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.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “The UK has a world class genomics capability, and it is thanks to the work of our leading medical scientists and researchers that our scientists have been able to identify new variants of coronavirus at speed.

“This crucial new research project will help us to understand not only the extent to which these new variants spread and their risks, but also how resistant they are to vaccines and treatments, so that we can tailor our response to help defeat this virus once and for all.”