Scientists use COVID data to create an early-warning system to predict the next major pandemic

The large-scale respiratory virus surveillance programme could provide an early warning system for outbreaks
The large-scale respiratory virus surveillance programme could provide an early warning system for outbreaks   -  Copyright  Canva
By Luke Hurst

A new large-scale surveillance programme of respiratory viruses in the UK could provide an “early-warning system” for future outbreaks, as well as help to develop effective vaccines.

Launched this week by the Wellcome Sanger Institute, a British genomics and genetics research centre, it will build on the work the organisation did sequencing millions of COVID-19 genomes during the coronavirus pandemic.

The institute says its Respiratory Virus & Microbiome Initiative aims to develop the capability for routine genomic surveillance of respiratory viruses, including influenza, adenovirus, rhinovirus, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Furthermore, it will monitor for emerging pathogens.

The announcement comes amid rising numbers of excess deaths in the UK, amid what the British Medical Journal called a surge in flu cases which is putting severe pressure on NHS services.

The team will initially establish a test from a single nose swab that can sequence the genome of COVID-19, the flu, and other common respiratory viruses.

Genomic sequencing offers an incredible opportunity to track viruses globally.
Gordon Dougan
Director of Infectious Disease, Wellcome Sanger Institute

Ultimately, they will aim to determine all of the genes and all of the species - including viral, bacterial and fungal species - in a single swab.

With that information, they will have a view of the respiratory virus dynamics in the UK, and make the extensive viral genome dataset available publicly.

"Genomic sequencing offers an incredible opportunity to track viruses globally," said Gordon Dougan, the Wellcome Sanger Institute’s Director of Infectious Disease.

"It can give researchers and policymakers a finger on the pulse of where and how they are circulating. This is vital information for preparing healthcare and research systems".

Blueprint for tracking viruses

He added that the initiative is an "important step" in establishing monitoring systems in the UK that can track outbreaks of viruses, and could provide a blueprint for virus tracking in other countries too.

The researchers will work with the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) as well as other public health bodies in the UK.

"Genomic sequencing has been crucial in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to be pivotal in global efforts to address all kinds of threats to health in the future," Professor Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor at the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA), said.

The institute said its programme will also enable a routine surveillance programme for respiratory pathogens, which will provide actionable data to inform public health decisions.

With the initiative, the Wellcome Sanger Institute aims "to help answer some of the most pressing public health questions," said Dr Ewan Harrison, who is heading the programme.

"Ultimately, we hope to contribute to global efforts to further establish pathogen genomics for routine public health and research, and as part of pandemic preparedness".