Scottish scientists at forefront of coronavirus genetic research

A scientific study will investigate what genetic factors cause Covid-19 to impact some people more severely than others.

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The UK-wide initiative is led by Dr Kenneth Baillie from the University of Edinburgh.
The UK-wide initiative is led by Dr Kenneth Baillie from the University of Edinburgh.

Researchers will study the genetic blueprints of severely ill patients to attempt to find what causes predisposition to the disease and identify possible treatments.

The UK-wide initiative involves sequencing the whole genomes of patients and is led by Dr Kenneth Baillie from the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with Genomics England, the NHS, and the global GenOMICC (Genetics of Susceptibility and Mortality in Critical Care) consortium.

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Dr Baillie said: “Our genes play a role in determining who becomes desperately sick with infections like Covid-19. Understanding these genes will help us to choose treatments for clinical trials.

“The GenOMICC study was launched before this outbreak and it is recruiting in 145 ICUs across the country with tremendous support from the critical care community. We are excited to work with Genomics England to tackle this new and complex disease.”

The partnership will allow whole genome sequencing to take place across the NHS, studying up to 20,000 people who are or have been in intensive care with coronavirus, as well as 15,000 people with mild symptoms.

GenOMICC, launched by Dr Baillie in 2016, is already working in more than 170 intensive care units across the UK and has signed up more than one thousand patients for the study.  The aim is to recruit every Covid-19 patient on a ventilator in the UK.

It remains unknown why some people with coronavirus get no symptoms at all while others become critically ill or die.

GenOMICC is an open, global consortium of intensive care clinicians to understand genetic factors that influence outcomes in intensive care from various diseases including SARS, influenza and sepsis and is designed to be able to rapidly perform research in the event of major outbreaks.

GenOMICC is funded by the charity Sepsis Research (FEAT), the Intensive Care Society, Wellcome, UKRI and Scotland’s Chief Scientist Office.

This new work is backed by £28 million of funding from Genomics England, UK Research and Innovation, the Department of Health and Social Care and the National Institute for Health Research.

Secretary of State for health Matt Hancock said:  “I am delighted to be announcing this further major programme in the UK’s fight against Covid-19.  As a nation we are determined to harness the UK’s leadership in genomics to understand its role in viral response and whether we can use this information to identify those at greatest risk and improve their treatment.”

Sir Mark Caulfield, Chief Scientist at Genomics England, said: “For the first time in a generation we face a global viral pandemic that is life-threatening for some people, yet others have a mild infection. By reading the whole genome we may able to identify variation that affects response to Covid-19 and discover new therapies that could reduce harm, save lives and even prevent future outbreaks.”