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Oxford researchers accurately trace Covid-19 transmission through genomic epidemiology

Dania Kamal Aryf shares the findings from a genomic study of Covid-19 transmission by researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh.

Researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh have recently published a comprehensive genomic analysis of the Covid-19 transmission. The full report was released on 8 January 2021, presenting detailed insights into the behaviour of Covid-19 transmission chains since the outbreak of the pandemic in the UK. 

The study is based on data from the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020, when the virus was first introduced into the region, and has found that the highest number of transmission chains had been introduced from Spain at 33%, France at 29%, and Italy at 12%. Transmission chains of the virus from China, meanwhile, accounted for only 0.4% of imports. 

The researchers drew on more than 50,000 virus genome sequences, in which 26,000 of these sequences were obtained from the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium. The results of the study offer a crucial context to what is happening now in the current wave of the pandemic in the UK. The same team have hence incorporated the genomic factor in identifying the latest variant (termed B.1.1.7) that is currently growing at rapid rates throughout the country. 

The team of scientists have suggested that a detailed comparison of the new variant’s behaviour with that of the first wave lineages will be crucial to understanding why the B.1.1.7 variant is spreading so quickly now. Before the March 2020 lockdown, high travel volumes and lax restrictions on international travel led to the circulation of more than 1,000 identifiable UK transmission lineages which had persisted into the summer of the same year. 

In a news article published by Oxford University, Professor Oliver Pybus, co-lead author based at Oxford’s Department of Zoology and the Oxford Martin School, said that by reconstructing where and when COVID-19 was introduced to the UK, we can see that earlier travel and quarantine interventions could have helped to reduce the acceleration and intensity of the UK’s first wave of cases. 

Another co-lead author, Louis du Plessis, also from Oxford’s Department of Zoology, added that the UK shares large volumes of virus genetic data publicly on a weekly basis, and that “if you don’t have this level of surveillance, you won’t know the real situation of virus evolution and transmission.” 

PhD researcher Verity Hill also emphasised that this form of continuous, nationally coordinated genomic sequencing allows for high-resolution analysis and for other countries to place their genomic data into context. This would enable countries to strategise a more effective pandemic response.

Image Credit: iSO-FORM LLC. Licence: CC BY 4.0

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