Imperial College London

Imperial leads new consortium to study threats from new SARS-CoV-2 variants

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The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus imaged under a microscope

Imperial researchers will lead a new consortium of UK virologists to study the effects of emerging mutations in SARS-CoV-2.

The ‘G2P-UK’ National Virology Consortium will study how mutations in the pandemic virus affect how transmissible it is, the severity of COVID-19 it causes, and the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments.

The virus is constantly throwing up new variants and we need to gear up to assess the risk they pose. Prof. Wendy Barclay Department of Infectious Disease

Professor Wendy Barclay, head of the Department of Infectious Disease, will lead the UK team, which brings together leading virologists from 10 research institutions, including King’s College London, University of Glasgow and the Pirbright Institute.

Backed by £2.5m in government funding from UK Research and Innovation, the team will work alongside the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium and Public Health England to boost the UK’s capacity to study newly identified virus variants and rapidly inform government policy.

“The UK has been fantastic in sequencing viral genomes and identifying new variants – now we have to better understand which mutations affect the virus in a way that might affect our control strategies,” explained Professor Barclay.

“We are already working to determine the effects of the recent virus variants identified in the UK and South Africa and what that means for the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and vaccine effectiveness.

“Now the virus has circulated in humans for more than one year and is prevalent all around the world, we’re in a phase where the virus is constantly throwing up new variants and we need to gear up to assess the risk they pose, and to understand the mechanisms by which they act.”

Sounding the alarm

As new SARS-CoV-2 variants arise, the consortium will flag those of highest risk, such as those associated with fast spreading virus clusters.

They will also create standardised versions of the virus in the lab, with and without each mutation, so they can study the effects of each change individually.

Professor Wendy Barclay
Professor Wendy Barclay will lead the new consortium, which hopes to translate the genomic data into biological evidence and work out which variants are of most concern. 

Researchers will study how these new variants alter the virus proteins, particularly the spike protein on the surface, which the virus uses to gain entry to cells and cause infection.

This is important because changes to the spike protein can affect transmissibility and could potentially alter the effectiveness of vaccines and antibodies that target the protein.

Using cell cultures and animal models, they will study if mutations alter virus transmissibility, immune response, the severity of the disease it causes, or the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments.

The researchers will study how readily the virus variants transmit by direct contact or airborne routes in animal models. They will also study the impact on disease severity, such as lung damage and breathing impairment, which correlate with symptoms typical of human COVID-19.

Additionally, they will determine whether mutations in the spike protein enable the virus to escape the immune response generated by either the vaccine or immune memory from earlier infection.

UK virology expertise

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), said: “One of the real strengths of the UK's scientific response to the pandemic has been the way that researchers from all over the country have pooled their expertise to deliver big results, fast.

“This new national consortium will study the effects of emerging variants on transmission, disease severity, and vaccine effectiveness – building on the work of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, which has been so effective in identifying new variants. This is critical research which will feed into government decision-making on a daily basis.”

Professor Massimo Palmarini, co-lead from the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, said: “Understanding the unique properties of a single SARS-CoV-2 variant requires experiments that can last several weeks. Hence, it is absolutely essential to carry out studies on SARS-CoV-2 variants as a coordinated effort at the UK level.”

Professor Michael Malim, co-lead from King’s College London, said: “It’s really important for the strengths and breadth of UK virology to come together and develop an evidence-base to explain the biological impacts of viral variants, such as possible resistance to vaccine induced immunity, and inform how we should respond and plan for the future.”

This article is based on materials from UK Research & Innovation.

Lead image: NIH / NIAID / Flickr

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Viruses, Comms-strategy-Real-world-benefits, COVIDWEF, Coronavirus, Global-challenges-Health-and-wellbeing, Animal-research, Genomics
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