COG-UK Consortium's Pathogen Genomics Expertise Played Important Role in UK Response to COVID-19; Valuable Contribution to Public Health Genomics Should Not Be Lost

For Release

Tuesday
February 15, 2022

  • Efforts of COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium helped to:
    • advance scientific knowledge about different variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus
    • inform key policy and public health decisions related to the COVID-19 pandemic
    • inform medical innovation efforts.
  • Pathogen genomics capacity needs to be embedded into the public health system for the long term, to help support pandemic preparedness and resilience.

The COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium has made a significant and valuable contribution to the United Kingdom's public health genomics landscape, according to an independent evaluation by the not-for-profit institute RAND Europe.

Researchers found that the consortium's efforts to sequence and understand the diverse variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, have been key to informing public health decisionmaking and efforts to control its spread.

The study evaluated the progress, evolution and impacts of COG-UK, a collaboration of experts in pathogen genomics established soon after the United Kingdom went into its first lockdown in March 2020. It includes academic institutions, the four public health agencies of the United Kingdom, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, National Health Service (NHS) Trusts, and Lighthouse Labs.

The collaboration has received funding from the National Institute for Health Research, the Medical Research Council part of United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI), Genome Research Limited (operating as the Wellcome Sanger Institute), the Testing Innovation Fund, and NHS Test and Trace.

During the evaluation period, COG-UK sequenced more than 800,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes across the United Kingdom. The total is now nearing 2 million. Such sequencing data and associated research and analyses have helped identify variants of concern and increased knowledge about viral behaviour, transmissibility, and spread, as well as the impact of diverse public health measures.

“The work of experts in the field of pathogen genomics that are part of COG-UK has underpinned key sequencing and research efforts,” said Sonja Marjanovic, lead author and director of health care innovation at RAND Europe. “This helped policymakers understand SARS-CoV-2 behaviour better, such as links between new variants and disease severity, and also informed policies related to border control, travel, lockdown, and social distancing across the four nations of the United Kingdom.”

“The consortium's pathogen sequencing has also contributed to decisionmaking in local settings, such as hospitals, care homes, and universities, by helping to understand sources of outbreaks and transmission patterns and by informing infection prevention and control,” said Tom Ling, report author and head of evaluation at RAND Europe.

The study further found that COG-UK has provided important inputs into medical innovation in response to the pandemic through its data and analytics. For example, the consortium's open sharing of data and insights have helped in efforts to understand and evaluate how well vaccines work against specific variants. The collaboration is also working with various groups to identify and characterise variants of concern in a way that could inform the development of the next generation of vaccines.

The report authors stress that COG-UK's model of contribution to the COVID-19 pandemic response was not designed to be sustainable in its current form. Efforts should therefore be made to ensure that the expertise, experiences, and relationships that have developed are not lost. A public health genomics ecosystem should be built with pathogen-sequencing networks at its core. Achieving this would depend on the abilities of decisionmakers in the public health system to transition from an emergency response operation to a legacy of sustained impact.

“The evaluation highlights the need for cooperation between different agencies and the need to embed genomics capacity into the public health system, build more sustainable workforce capacity, and invest in clinical and epidemiological data linkage,” said Marjanovic.

“COG-UK's legacy could contribute to strengthening networks across the United Kingdom and encourage cross-organisational and interdisciplinary working, enhancing UK science's global presence,” said Robert Romanelli, a research leader at RAND Europe and coauthor on the evaluation.

Professor Sharon Peacock, executive director and chair of COG-UK, said: “Commissioning an independent evaluation of COG-UK was vital both in terms of accountability for the public money invested in the consortium and also in ensuring that we learn from what worked, and what could have been improved, to maximise the legacy of the endeavour and achievement of all involved.”

Besides Marjanovic, Ling, and Romanelli, authors of the report, Evaluation of the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium, are Gemma Claire-Ali, Brandi Leach, Margaretha Bonsu, and Daniela Rodriguez Rincon.

- ENDS -

Notes to Editors:

  • To request a copy of the report or arrange an interview with one of the researchers on the project, contact Cat McShane on cmcshane@randeurope.org or +44 (0) 7525 967 079.
  • The RAND Corporation is a research organisation that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous. RAND is nonprofit, nonpartisan, and committed to the public interest.
  • RAND Europe, an affiliate of the RAND Corporation, is a not-for-profit research organisation whose mission is to help improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.