Early last March when coronavirus started to become established in Britain, Professor Sharon Peacock emailed five colleagues with the simple subject heading: ‘Can you call me, please?’
Within weeks she had put together a consortium of the country’s leading genomic researchers, made a formal proposition to Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, and secured £20m in funding. Their mission: to map the genome of Covid-19 as it spread across the country.
On that relatively shoestring budget, Professor Sharon Peacock, a professor of public health and microbiology at Cambridge University, and her colleagues have led the world. They have been responsible for identifying the Kent variant – which Peacock predicts will now sweep the globe – and earlier this month another mutation of that already virulent strain. This latest mutation, known as E484K and detected in Bristol and Manchester, has already proven far more resistant to vaccines, and while cases are low, there remains huge concern about its potential spread.
Cog-UK, the name for the genomics consortium of which Prof Peacock is director, recently surpassed mapping its 250,000th Covid genome – last week managing 30,000 alone. To put that figure into context, prior to the pandemic Public Health England sequenced 50,000 pathogen genomes in a single year. Globally, Cog-UK’s findings currently comprise 50 per cent of the global database, GISAID, which provides open access to the genomic data of the virus. Such a staggering contribution has cemented Britain’s reputation as the world-leader in genomic research, although Prof Peacock warns that without urgent international effort from other rich nations we still risk losing control of the virus.
After all, she says, Covid-19 has already torn through more than 100m people and in every single human body the virus has the chance to mutate. “I do think there is a moral duty on countries to support a combination of equitable vaccine access combined with an ability to see the sequence data,” she says. “I believe every wealthy nation who can afford it should be doing it for their own people. if you vaccinate your people you want to be sure there isn’t a variant prevalent to limit effectiveness.”