dna strands

British researchers develop technology that could prevent future pandemics

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UK researchers are developing a genetic technology that could act as an early-warning system for new diseases and future pandemics.

A team at the Wellcome Sanger Institute is developing a new method for monitoring genetic changes in respiratory viruses as they circulate throughout the world.

The project is working to roll out cheap, easy-to-use technology across the globe to spot the emergence of any new health threats and prevent large-scale crises similar to Covid-19. The system aims to pinpoint dangerous new variants as they emerge, allowing scientists to keep track of the evolution of a virus. 

The technology will monitor a wide range of viruses including influenza viruses, coronaviruses and respiratory syncytial viruses, the researchers said.

“Britain was at the leading edge of the genomic surveillance of Covid-19 and was responsible for about 20 per cent of all the Sars-CoV-2 genomes that were sequenced across the planet during the pandemic,” Ewan Harrison, who is leading the project, told The Guardian.

“The knowledge and data we generated allowed us to track – with unprecedented speed and accuracy – Sars-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19, and to monitor how it was changing. It was a wonderful aid in helping to fight the disease. Now we are aiming to contribute building a global genomic surveillance for all respiratory viruses. These, after all, are the agents most likely to trigger new pandemics.”

Ultimately, the Respiratory Virus and Microbiome Initiative aims to deploy DNA-sensitive technology to go past viruses and be also used to monitor bacteria and fungus via nose swabs. These are often the cause of co-infections or secondary infections in patients suffering from a virus. 

“Genomic sequencing offers incredible opportunity to track viruses globally," said Gordon Dougan, director of infectious diseases at Wellcome. 

"This approach is an example of how science can be used to detect rising levels of infectious diseases and identify its sources and drivers. It could also become a blueprint to strengthen virus tracking in other countries. Preventing future pandemics depends on countries around the world working together to ensure early intervention on infectious disease rise and spread.”

The Sanger team is collaborating with the UK Health Security Agency, British academics and other public health bodies on the project.

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