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Norfolk scientists beat 100 countries as they map coronavirus spread

PUBLISHED: 14:02 01 October 2020 | UPDATED: 14:02 01 October 2020

Scientists at the 
Quadram Institute using sequencing machines to study samples of the coronavirus  Picture: Jason Bye

Scientists at the Quadram Institute using sequencing machines to study samples of the coronavirus Picture: Jason Bye

© Jason Bye t: 0044 (0) 7966 173 930 e: mail@jasonbye.com w: http://www.jasonbye.com

Scientists in Norfolk have studied 1,500 local samples of coronavirus - more than all but four countries around the globe.

Ground breaking research into the DNA of the coronavirus carried out in Norwich is helping scientists to map its spread and understand the effectiveness of control meaures  Picture: Jason Bye Ground breaking research into the DNA of the coronavirus carried out in Norwich is helping scientists to map its spread and understand the effectiveness of control meaures Picture: Jason Bye

Only Australia, Spain, India and the USA have studied more than the researchers at the Quadram Institute and University of East Anglia (UEA).

The detailed analysis of genome sequencing has helped them to track and understand the spread of coronavirus infections in our region.

It has also helped experts to map the spread of Covid-19, identify hidden outbreaks and understand the effectiveness of measures to contain it.

Colours show the different lineages of Covid-19 samples analysed by scientists at the Quadram Institute and UEA  Picture: Quadram Institute/UEAColours show the different lineages of Covid-19 samples analysed by scientists at the Quadram Institute and UEA Picture: Quadram Institute/UEA

Genomes were mapped from 42pc of positive cases across the region during the first wave of infections.

Samples came from the region’s hospitals, community care organisations and drive-through testing facilities. Each was examined for tiny changes in their genetic code that indicate different types, or lineages, of the virus.

The team identified 100 different variants circulating in Norfolk between March and August.

Ground breaking research into the DNA of the coronavirus carried out in Norwich is helping scientists to map its spread and understand the effectiveness of control meaures  Picture: Jason Bye Ground breaking research into the DNA of the coronavirus carried out in Norwich is helping scientists to map its spread and understand the effectiveness of control meaures Picture: Jason Bye

They found that there had been multiple introductions of the coronavirus into the region, mainly from the UK and other European countries.

The number of lineages peaked five weeks after lockdown started. Many quickly disappeared, showing that measures to prevent transmission were working.

As cases decreased, the number of different forms of the virus circulating also fell.

Dr Justin O'Grady examines some of the data obtained during the study  Picture: Jason ByeDr Justin O'Grady examines some of the data obtained during the study Picture: Jason Bye

But the data also told a human story. Analysis of samples from an outbreak at the Banham Poultry plant in Attleborough, which flared up in August, showed its lineage was highly-related.

That meant the virus was spreading between factory workers, enabling health officials to step up contact tracing efforts to isolate those infected or at risk.

Cases at Ipswich Hospital were found to contain multiple lineages, meaning the infections had been picked up in the community, rather than within the hospital.

Ground breaking research into the DNA of the coronavirus carried out in Norwich is helping scientists to map its spread and understand the effectiveness of control meaures  Picture: Jason Bye Ground breaking research into the DNA of the coronavirus carried out in Norwich is helping scientists to map its spread and understand the effectiveness of control meaures Picture: Jason Bye

Another lineage found within a group of care homes in Norwich which has not yet appeared in the wider community is currently under investigation.

The research also appears to show that the virus has a stable, low genetic mutation rate, while reinfection remains rare.

But as infections start to rise again, genome studies will play a vital part in combatting the spread.

Dr Louise Smith, Norfolk’s director of public health, said “It is very exciting that we can use cutting edge technologies such as viral genomic epidemiology to help us manage outbreaks on the ground in real time.

“It is immensely valuable to be able to identify whether an outbreak is due to a new introduction of the virus or linked to local cases, and conversely to be able to track the progression of outbreaks out into the general community.”

The Norwich Research Park team is led by Dr Justin O’Grady and Dr Andrew Page.

It is one of 19 partners in a UK-wide consortium set up in March to study the virus.

Dr O’Grady said: “We believe that this gives Norfolk one of the highest genome sequence coverage rates per capita in the world.

“Viral genome sequencing provides much greater resolution than traditional epidemiological methods allowing us to distinguish between different clusters. This is vital information, especially as we move into a second peak of infections.”

Data is being shared with UK health agencies, as well as academics internationally, as part of the global effort to understand and control the virus.

Dr Page said: “We have quickly put in place a robust, rapid pipeline for sequencing, with weekly data fed back into the national effort for pandemic management, whilst also helping local outbreak analyses.

“These achievements were only possible through the collaborative efforts of scientists, clinicians, data managers and epidemiologists.”

Dr Samir Dervisevic, consultant virologist at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, said the study had helped clinicians understand infections happening within hospitals and reduce transmission of the virus from hospitals to the community.

He added a new study would enable forms of the virus to be sequenced within 24 hours.

“The rapid deployment of genome sequencing in outbreak situations would greatly aid the effort to reduce the risk of the spread of infection amongst our vulnerable patients as well the staff,” he said.


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