University of Glasgow leads Covid-19 research in Scotland

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Clara Punsita Ritthikarn
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The MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research is developing a toolbox of reagents to help current and future studies of COVID-19.

The MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR) is at the centre of COVID-19 research response in Scotland and the UK.

Established in 2010, CVR represents the UK’s largest grouping of human and veterinary virologists and provides research opportunities to investigate virus-host interactions and immune response to virus infection within the Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation at the University of Glasgow.

The Centre is funded by the Medical Research Council and other funding bodies such as Wellcome Trust, the BBSRC, and EU.

Now, CVR is developing a toolbox of reagents to help current and future studies of COVID-19, while working with the MRC Phosphorylation Unit at the University of Dundee to generate antibodies against the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes this new disease in humans.

“This coronavirus is a new virus, to which none of us have prior immunity to. Therefore, most of the UK population are susceptible. It appears to be very infectious – much more so than flu – as evident by the high number of healthcare workers that have been infected,” said Dr Antonia Ho, a Clinical Senior Lecturer at the CVR and Honorary Consultant in Infectious Diseases.

In an attempt to cease this ongoing transmission in real-time, many scientists at the CVR are working in partnership with colleagues across the UK on a range of research areas related to the new coronavirus. They also work closely with colleagues in Public Health England.

Those research areas include fundamental studies to understand the nature of the SARS-CoV-2, genomic sequencing and bioinformatics analyses of the virus from patient samples, and the identification of potential therapies.

Professor Massimo Palmarini, Director of the CVR, said: “The CVR and its scientists are at the centre of Scotland’s – and the UK’s – response to the current coronavirus outbreak. As the largest group of virologists in the UK with the facilities to handle samples from infected patients, we are well placed to conduct pivotal research into emerging diseases such as COVID-19.

“In the coming weeks and months, our scientists will continue to work in collaboration with NHS Scotland, sequencing the virus, as well as conducting further research into SARS-CoV-2, its mechanisms of action and potential therapies.”

In early March, CVR scientists rapidly sequenced the virus from the first COVID-19 case confirmed in Scotland in collaboration with the NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde West of Scotland Specialist Virology Centre.

Professor Emma Thomson and Head of the CVR’s Viral Genomics facility Dr. Ana da Silva Filipe, together with a team of CVR scientists, will continually sequence SARS-CoV-2 virus from COVID-19 samples obtained from patients across Scotland as long as the outbreak lasts.

“We know that we need to respond rapidly to this outbreak, which is why this laboratory has taken the decision to prioritise efforts to sequence and understand this virus,” said Thomson.

This rapid sequencing of COVID-19 samples is essential to further research into the virus so that scientists from around the world can extract information from the genetic code or blueprint of this new coronavirus to ultimately create vaccines.

Dr Filipe said: “The rapid turnaround of the sample and interpretation of the data was only possible due to excellent coordination between clinicians, diagnostic labs, and research partners. These collaborations are critically important to ensuring an effective response to outbreaks like this

“Equally important is the trend of open sharing of reagents and protocols amongst researchers and the public sharing of sequencing data, which has been a defining feature of the response to recent viral epidemics.”

Meanwhile, the CVR is a partner in the International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium (ISARIC). Dr Ho is currently coordinating the recruitment of Scottish patients to the ISARIC UK Clinical Characterisation Protocol (CCP).

This CCP aims to answer urgent questions on how to treat patients and control the outbreak in the UK, while CVR will act as the repository for samples from patients recruited to this protocol in Scotland and take on full genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 from these samples.