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UK virus hunting labs try to strengthen global variant network

1of14Research assistant Emily checks a flow cell before putting it into the sequencer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022. By sequencing as many positive cases as possible, researchers hope to identify variants of concern as quickly as possible, then track their spread to provide early warnings…

Research assistant Emily checks a flow cell before putting it into the sequencer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022. By sequencing as many positive cases as possible, researchers hope to identify variants of concern as quickly as possible, then track their spread to provide early warnings for health officials.
1of14Research assistant Emily checks a flow cell before putting it into the sequencer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022. Researchers hope to find the most common variants of concern and track their spread so that health officials can be notified early. Frank Augstein/AP
Research assistants watch the sequencing machines analyzing the genetic material of COVID-19 cases at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. The laboratory is one example of how British scientists have industrialized the process of genomic sequencing during the pandemic, cutting the time and cost needed to generate a unique genetic fingerprint for each coronavirus case analyzed.
2of14Research assistants watch the sequencing machines analyzing the genetic material of COVID-19 cases at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. This laboratory shows how British scientists have industrialized genomic sequencing, cutting down on the time and costs involved in creating unique genetic fingerprints for each coronavirus case. Frank Augstein/AP
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Ewan Harrison, a senior research fellow at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, speaks to The Associated Press on the Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022. British scientists hunting down coronavirus variants have a new mission: sharing their expertise with others around the world. The omicron variant now fueling a new wave of infection around the world shows the need for global cooperation, Harrison said.
4of14Ewan Harrison, a senior research fellow at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, speaks to The Associated Press on the Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022. British scientists are now sharing their knowledge with the rest of the world. Harrison stated that the omicron variant is causing a new wave in infection worldwide and called for international cooperation. Frank Augstein/AP
Research assistant Robert demonstrates how to prepare a sample for sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022. The laboratory is one example of how British scientists have industrialized the process of genomic sequencing during the pandemic, cutting the time and cost needed to generate a unique genetic fingerprint for each coronavirus case analyzed.
5of14Research assistant Robert demonstrates how to prepare a sample for sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022. This laboratory is an example of how British scientists have industrialized genomic sequencing in the face of the pandemic. Frank Augstein/AP
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Research assistants work at sequencing machines analyzing the genetic material of COVID-19 cases at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. The laboratory is one example of how British scientists have industrialized the process of genomic sequencing during the pandemic, cutting the time and cost needed to generate a unique genetic fingerprint for each coronavirus case analyzed.
7of14Research assistants work at sequencing machines analyzing the genetic material of COVID-19 cases at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.Research assistants watch the sequencing machines analyzing the genetic material of COVID-19 cases at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022. By sequencing as many positive cases as possible, researchers hope to identify variants of concern as quickly as possible, then track their spread to provide early warnings for health officials.Frank Augstein/AP
Research assistant Robert demonstrates how to prepare a sample for sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022. By sequencing as many positive cases as possible, researchers hope to identify variants of concern as quickly as possible, then track their spread to provide early warnings for health officials.
8of14Research assistant Robert demonstrates how to prepare a sample for sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022.Frank Augstein/AP
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A research assistant Robert demonstrates how to prepare a sample with a shaker for sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022. By sequencing as many positive cases as possible, researchers hope to identify variants of concern as quickly as possible, then track their spread to provide early warnings for health officials.
10of14A research assistant Robert demonstrates how to prepare a sample with a shaker for sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022.Frank Augstein/AP
Research assistants watch the sequencing machines analyzing the genetic material of COVID-19 cases at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022. By sequencing as many positive cases as possible, researchers hope to identify variants of concern as quickly as possible, then track their spread to provide early warnings for health officials.
11of14Research assistants watch the sequencing machines analyzing the genetic material of COVID-19 cases at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, Friday, on Jan. 7, 2022.Frank Augstein/AP
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A research assistant points at sample containers for sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. The laboratory is one example of how British scientists have industrialized the process of genomic sequencing during the pandemic, cutting the time and cost needed to generate a unique genetic fingerprint for each coronavirus case analyzed.
13of14A research assistant points at sample containers for sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, England, on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.Frank Augstein/AP
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LONDON (AP) — The air conditioners hum constantly in the lab at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, countering the heat thrown off by rows of high-tech sequencing machines that work seven days a week analyzing the genetic material of COVID-19 cases from throughout the U.K.

The laboratory is one example of how British scientists have industrialized the process of genomic sequencing during the pandemic, cutting the time and cost needed to generate a unique genetic fingerprint for each coronavirus case analyzed. That made the U.K. a world leader in COVID-19 sequencing, helping public health authorities track the spread of new variants, develop vaccines and decide when to impose lockdowns.

But now researchers at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge and labs around the U.K. have a new mission: sharing what they’ve learned with other scientists because COVID-19 has no regard for national borders.

The omicron variant now fueling a new wave of infection around the world shows the need for global cooperation, said Ewan Harrison, a senior research fellow at Sanger. Scientists in southern Africa first identified Omicron, and quickly published their findings. This gave public health officials around the globe time to prepare.

Since dangerous mutations of the virus can occur anywhere, scientists must monitor its development everywhere to protect everyone, Harrison said, drawing a parallel to the need to speed up vaccinations in the developing world.

“We need to be prepared globally,” he said. “We can’t just kind of put a fence around an individual country or parts of the world, because that’s just not going to cut it.”

Britain made sequencing a priority early in the pandemic after Cambridge University Professor Sharon Peacock identified the key role it could play in combating the virus and won government funding for a national network of scientists, laboratories and testing centers known as the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium. This allowed the U.K. to mobilize academic and scientific expertise built up since British researchers first identified the chemical structure of DNA in 1953.

The consortium is now backing efforts to bolster global sequencing efforts with a training program focused on researchers in developing countries. The consortium and Wellcome Connecting Science have received funding from the U.K government to provide online courses in data sharing, sampling and working with public agencies to aid researchers in building national sampling programs.

“There is inequity in access to sequencing worldwide, and (the project) is committed to contributing toward efforts that close this gap,” the group said, announcing plans to offer the first courses early this year.

By sequencing as many positive cases as possible, researchers hope to identify variants of concern as quickly as possible, then track their spread to provide early warnings for health officials.

The U.K. has supplied more COVID-19 sequences to the global clearinghouse than any country other than the U.S. and has sequenced a bigger percentage of its cases than any large nation worldwide.

Researchers in the U.K. have submitted 1. 68 million sequences, covering 11.7% of reported cases, according to data compiled by GISAID, which promotes rapid sharing of information about COVID-19 and the flu. The U.S. has provided 2. 22 million sequences, or 3.8% of its reported cases.

Most countries are doing some sequencing but the volume and speed varies greatly. While 205 jurisdictions have shared sequences with GSAID, more than half have sequenced and shared less than 1% of their total cases.

Over the past two years, labs around the U.K. have refined the process of gathering and analyzing COVID-19 samples until it resembles just-in-time manufacturing strategies. Each step is covered in detail — from the swab to the sequence to reporting — and includes systems to ensure supplies are available at the right time so work can continue.

That has helped slash the cost of analyzing each genome by 50% while reducing the turnaround time from sample to sequence to five days from three weeks, according to Wellcome Sanger.

Increasing sequencing capacity is like building a pipeline, according to Dr. Eric Topol, chair of innovative medicine at Scripps Research in San Diego, California. To increase sequencing capacity, countries must have the right supplies, staff and tools to interpret and perform the work, as well as systems and protocols to ensure data sharing is transparent and quick.

Putting all those pieces in place has been a challenge for the U.S., let alone developing countries, Topol said.

Genomic sequencing “as a surveillance tool worldwide is essential, because many of these low- and middle-income countries don’t have the sequencing capabilities, particularly with any reasonable turnaround time,” he said. It’s great that the Wellcome Center has a hand to help. We need that.”

At Wellcome Sanger’s state-of-the-art lab, samples arrive constantly from around the country. Laboratory assistants prepare and load the genetic material onto plates. The sequencing units decode each sample’s unique DNA code. Scientists analyze the data to determine if there are any new trends.

With COVID-19 constantly mutating, the priority is to check for new more dangerous variants, including those that may be resistant to vaccines, Harrison said. This information is crucial in helping researchers to modify vaccines and develop new ones to fight the ever-changing virus.

Harrison praised South Africa for its work on the highly transmissible omicron variant and quickly sharing its research with international authorities. Unfortunately, South Africa was then severely affected by the restrictions placed on travel from many countries.

Harrison said developing nations must be encouraged to publish data on new variants without fear of economic repercussions because punishing countries like South Africa will only hamper information sharing that is needed to combat COVID-19 and future pandemics.

“The key thing, obviously, is this constant routine surveillance,” he said. “And I think the most important step now is increasing that globally.”

For now, it also means lots of work, every day, to keep watch. Tristram Bellerby is the manager of the lab.

“It’s been good to see that our work has been valuable in finding these new variants,” he said. “I hope at some point it could aid us in getting out of this situation we find ourselves in.”

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Follow all AP stories on the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

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