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New partnership to sequence human genomes in the fight against COVID-19

Published: 13 May 2020

Thousands of patients severely ill with COVID-19 will have their genetic code studied to help scientists understand whether a person’s genetic makeup could influence how they react to coronavirus.

This ground-breaking research may help explain why some patients with COVID-19 experience a mild infection, others require intensive care and some patients die from COVID-19.

The GenOMICC (Genetics of Susceptibility and Mortality in Critical Care) study will identify the specific genes that cause some people to be susceptible to specific infections. Identifying these genes will help determine which existing treatments will work in which patients, and support design of new treatments to help people survive critical illness.

The study will recruit up to 20,000 people currently or previously in an intensive care unit with coronavirus, and 15,000 individuals who have mild or moderate symptoms. So far, DNA samples have been collected from almost 2,000 patients.

Genomics England will read the data from entire genomes – or genetic blueprints – of people who have been most severely affected by COVID-19 and compare them to those who experience only mild symptoms.

This major new human whole genome sequencing study has been awarded £28 million of funding from Genomics England, UK Research and Innovation, the Department of Health and Social Care, and the NIHR.

Life sciences company Illumina will sequence all genomes for the initiative at its laboratories in Cambridge, where they successfully delivered the 100,000 Genomes Project, through an in-kind contribution.

The study has also been designated with Urgent Public Health Research status by the NIHR and the Department of Health and Social Care, to prioritise its delivery in the NHS nationwide by the NIHR Clinical Research Network.

Dr Kenneth Baillie, Chief Investigator at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Our genes play a role in determining who becomes desperately sick with infections like COVID-19.

“Understanding these genes will help us to choose treatments for clinical trials. The GenOMICC study was launched before this outbreak and it is recruiting in more than 160 intensive care units across the country, with tremendous support from the critical care community. We are excited to work with Genomics England to tackle this new and complex disease.”

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock said: “As each day passes we are learning more about this virus, and understanding how genetic makeup may influence how people react to it is a critical piece of the jigsaw.

“This is a ground-breaking and far-reaching study which will harness the UK’s world-leading genomics science to improve treatments and ultimately save lives across the world.”

Since genetic discoveries need very large numbers of patients, the GenOMICC study ultimately aims to recruit every single COVID-19 patient who is admitted to intensive care in the UK. Patients will only be enrolled in the study if they, or their next of kin, have given their consent.

Part of the study will focus on children and young adults severely affected by COVID-19. The NIHR BioResource is partnering with GenOMMICC and Genomics England to provide infrastructure, expertise and £1m funding to investigate this by collecting samples from young patients and their parents.

Professor John Bradley CBE, Co-Chair of the NIHR BioResource, said: “The NIHR BioResource is delighted to build on our established partnership with Genomics England and work with GenOMICC to understand in particular why some children and young adults are so severely affected by COVID19.”

Data from people’s genomes will also be linked to virus genome data provided by the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) viral sequencing programme, a partnership of NHS organisations, UK public health agencies, the Sanger Institute and UK academic centres such as the NIHR Sheffield Biomedical Research Centre.

Linking this data to the patient’s own genome data in the GenOMICC study may provide unique insights into how the patient and virus genomes act together to influence the patient’s response to the infection and will help inform and improve our response to future outbreaks.


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