UK launches new global platform to track new COVID-19 variants

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The UK launched a New Variant Assessment Platform on Tuesday, which it says will offer the country’s world-leading genomics expertise to identify new variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 to countries who do not have the resources to do so.

As part of the UK’s Presidency of the G7 this year, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock outlined the plans in a speech at the think tank Chatham House the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London as he laid out his vision for a stronger, more collaborative and effective global health system, not just in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, but to ensure the international community is better prepared for future threats.

“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 we’ve never met. When one of us suffers, we all suffer”, said Hancock.

“So we must work to promote health security in every single part of the world. Not only will this Platform help us better understand this virus and how it spreads, but it will also boost global capability in this important field, so we’re all better prepared for whatever lies ahead”, he said.

Countries will be offered UK capacity to analyse new strains of the virus through the launch of the platform led by Public Health England (PHE), working with NHS Test and Trace and academic partners as well as the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) SARS-CoV-2 Global Laboratory Working Group. In due course, it will be led by the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) and will involve PHE laboratories and staff as well as academic partner capabilities.

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.

The platform will be working directly on samples provided from abroad or will provide expert advice and support remotely where the partner country already has some capabilities in this area but requests further assistance. The offer could include training and resources as well as personnel and equipment.

Countries will be able to apply for assistance by contacting the WHO where an existing channel does not already exist with the UK.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) describes the move as vital work to combat the spread of coronavirus by identifying more COVID-19 variants around the world to keep the global community one step ahead of any mutations.

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, southern England, informing new measures to tackle the spread of the virus.

“New variants of coronavirus can be threats to the progress made so far with treatments and vaccines, so it is vital that the global community is able to react to them quickly and decisively”, the DHSC said.

The aim of the new platform is for the UK’s genomic expertise to guide the global response to controlling the spread of deadly viruses and saving lives.



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