UK to offer genomic expertise to identify new Covid strains abroad

26 January 2021, 00:03

File photo: Health Secretary Matt Hancock will make the pledge on Tuesday
File photo: Health Secretary Matt Hancock will make the pledge on Tuesday. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The UK is set to offer genomic expertise to nations with limited resources in order to provide an early warning of concerning new coronavirus variants emerging abroad.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock is to make the pledge on Tuesday as the Government becomes increasingly concerned over strains evolving to evade vaccines.

He will offer the support of a new variant assessment platform, to be led by Public Health England, to analyse the genetics of coronavirus samples.

Read more: Nearly four in five of over-80s have received first Covid vaccine jab, Hancock says

In a speech to the Chatham House think tank, Mr Hancock is expected to say: "This pandemic has shown that the foundations of so many of the exciting experiences that make life worth living are contingent not just on our health, or the health of our neighbours, but the health of people across the world.

"The new variants of coronavirus have demonstrated this once again so we must work to promote health security right across the world.

"Our new variant assessment platform will help us better understand this virus and how it spreads and will also boost global capacity to understand coronavirus, so we're all better prepared for whatever lies ahead."

Mr Hancock's pledge comes as the Government faces pressure to increase border protections to prevent new strains arriving from overseas.

Nations will be able to request the support through the World Health Organisation or directly to the UK.

The UK has carried out more than half of all SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences submitted to the global database, and this capability helped PHE’s scientists identify the variant in Kent, informing new measures to tackle the spread of the virus.

Dr Isabel Oliver, Director of Public Health England’s National Infection Service, said: “We know that the virus will evolve over time and certain mutations could potentially cause the virus to spread faster, make people sicker, or possibly affect how well vaccines work.

"Genomic testing is crucial to our efforts to control the virus – it allows us to keep an eye on how the virus is changing and to respond before it’s too late.

“This new initiative will bring Public Health England’s cutting edge science to countries that have little or no ability to sequence and analyse COVID-19 virus strains themselves.

"It will also give us crucial early warning of new variants emerging around the world that might endanger the UK.”