Meet the variant hunters on the frontline

(Getty Images)

Professor Sharon Peacock is acutely aware that in her line of work there is “a fine balance between calling it right and unduly panicking people”. She is the executive director and chairwoman of the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which means she is on the frontline of looking at new variants of coronavirus and discussing what the appropriate response to them is. It also means that she goes to a lot of long, politically-charged meetings — where her colleagues do not always agree.

“We had a meeting about the Indian variant that overran by at least an hour because there was so much debate as to whether we would escalate the seriousness of the threat posed by the variant or not,” says Dr Christina Atchison, who leads Public Health England’s rapid investigation unit. “The majority of us felt we should err on the side of caution but there was a lot of discussion. I’d have been inclined to wait two to three weeks before easing lockdown on May 17 until we knew more — it takes two to three weeks to grow the virus in a lab to understand it — but I appreciate there are political and economic considerations.”

There was always going to be a degree of uncertainty when dealing with a new virus but the timing of the Indian variant’s emergence (now called Delta) has been particularly painful as businesses are only beginning to bounce back and people’s hopes are pinned on the easing of restrictions on June 21. As a variant from Nepal is detected in Europe, Sir John Bell, a leading member of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine team has warned that the country cannot “scamper down a rabbit hole” with every new variant. He says that Covid is probably here forever and the Government should focus on managing hospitalisations, serious disease and deaths rather than cases. Professor Peacock says: “You feel a level of concern [with new variants] but we have years of this to come. I am glad I don’t have to make the political decisions.”

At the moment, the uncertainty comes from us still working out how new variants of Covid react to vaccines. Early studies are promising but Professor Peacock, Dr Atchison and their colleagues are working as quickly as they can to find out as much as they can.

“Mutations are to be expected — viruses always do evolve in order to survive,” says Dr Atchison. “But Covid is so new and we don’t know how it reacts to vaccines.”

A mutation is a genetic alteration in the protein that makes up a disease. Each time the virus replicates in someone’s throat it has the opportunity to mutate and there are around two new mutations of coronavirus a month, but it is the position of the mutation, not its frequency, which matters. “You only need one mutation in the right place on the virus to make a difference,” says Professor Peacock.

She set up COG-UK when the pandemic began amid opposition from those who said that coronavirus does not mutate as fast as HIV or flu so there was no need to have a special body to sequence its genomes. But Professor Peacock didn’t want to risk it and wait until the worst case scenario happened, only to find that we were not prepared. “It wasn’t difficult to realise that the virus was going to mutate and this was something we should think about for the future,” she says. “Pathogens evolve, it is survival of the fittest to help them survive.”

When she saw in the news that there were a large number of coronavirus cases in India back in early March, she says her “ears pricked up”. What she and her colleagues needed to work out was whether the virus was spreading because of the way that people were behaving or because of a particularly transmissible new strain. There are actually three related variants in the UK associated with India but they realised within a couple of days that just one of them needed to be watched closely.

(Dr Christina Atchison)

“What we want to see is that we can track a case and link it to other cases in what we call a cluster,” says Dr Atchison. “If we are able to do that it provides reassurance that the events are in that group. What we don’t want is too much of a delay between getting a positive test and knowing it is linked to a cluster because then it may have been transmitted already.” Dr Meaghan Kall, lead epidemiologist in PHE’s COVID-19 Epidemiology Cell, monitoring the number of cases and deaths and, more recently, COVID-19 variants. A typical day is a 12-hour shift starting at 8am. “We do a huddle to task work to scientists for the day, prioritising urgent tasks – which feels like most of our work at the moment. I check and sign off outputs like slides and datasets which get sent to local teams and JBC, DHSC, SPI-M and SAGE. For variants, on a daily basis we take genomic sequencing results and enhance them with demographic and clinical data to be able to describe the populations affected and examine outcomes like increased transmissibility and severity.”

Scientists at PHE are working 75-hour weeks and Professor Peacock says she is grateful to the academics who have put their PhDs on hold to commit to sequencing, and to their families for putting up with their long hours. Last Christmas they were all in the lab.

Dr Atchison says with a laugh that she was “hoping for a quieter summer … but then something puts a spanner in the works”. Her “bread and butter” used to be TB, measles in school and scabies and flu in care homes, but for the foreseeable future it will be Covid. They agree that it is something we have to learn to live with. “We have to get into a beat of looking at it, understanding the impact and learning to live with it,” says Professor Peacock.

The concern is that other countries without such advanced laboratories may not be able to find out so much about their variants until it is too late. “I worry a lot about variants from areas where there is insufficient sequencing capability, meaning we may not know about the variants until they come over here,” says Professor Peacock. “Until all countries get a grip on this it is unlikely we will see the end of this,” says Dr Atchison. “Shutting borders to everyone all the time is not sustainable. While Covid is rampant in other parts of the world we will see things like the Indian and Kent variants happening.”

(Professor Sharon Peacock)

The UK is leading the world on genomic sequencing of Covid — by December last year, the UK was responsible for half of all the world’s genome sequencing of coronavirus. The samples came from hospitals and the community and they try to work with offices too but get more pushback (it is not obligatory to give them). In 2013, it would take 18 months and half a million pounds to sequence one genome. Now it takes a few days and costs £20 because they have expanded the scale at which they work and the tech has improved. There are 400 people in the COG-UK consortium and they run 15 sequencing labs in academic institutions across the country.

“It is a revolution. We are sequencing on a scale we have never done before,” says Professor Peacock. Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, has said this is an opportunity for science. “Never before have politicians been so keen to throw money at us,” says Dr Atchison. “I can see how this is an opportunity to make a really strong case and build a public health system.” Many of the top scientists are women, which Peacock says is “tremendous” and getting younger people interested in careers in science.

The programme that is used now was set up when the Kent variant broke out, back then “it was a scramble to get new information”, says Dr Kall, “but we learn more with each new variant”. After Kent, Dr Atchison was given the green light to enlarge her team from two people to eight. Professor Peacock was also allowed to increase the capacity of tests, It was harder to work out where that variant had come from than the India variant, says Dr Atchison, who at one point “wondered if everyone in Kent had been to an illegal rave”. It turned out the virus mutated in one patient.

The scientists are aware that naming variants after areas can lead to prejudice and so it is good news that the variants will now be referred to with Greek alphabet letters. “We don’t call Covid the China virus,” says Dr Atchison. “Apart from the pain of having to learn a new naming system, I think this is a positive development,” says Dr Kall. “It’s crucial that the public are able to easily name and identify variants and even experts can struggle with the complicated alphanumeric names. I’m going to have to work on my Greek though!”

What is the best way of reducing mutations? “Controlling disease,” says Professor Peacock. Ventilation makes a big difference. Dr Atchison looked into a block of flats in east London where the Brazilian variant spread through the airflow system and the same happened in a quarantine hotel in New Zealand.

Thankfully there are no new variants of concern at the moment. There is a Californian one that has been on the list for a long time but it hasn’t been reported of a particular concern and there was one from Nigeria which was found in Antigua but it hasn’t been seen since. The next step is to work out how to de-escalate. “How do we take things off the list and give local teams a bit of a break?” asks Dr Atchison. “The problem is when there is so much uncertainty. The winter will be interesting. I am hoping it will be like flu — it will be there but you only clamp down if it is in a vulnerable setting like a care home and the political and scientific hysteria will decrease. And then we can all have a bit of a break.

News Related


How to watch Handball EURO 2022 live stream free online

It’s got to the business end of the 2022 European Men’s Handball Championship and there are four teams left in the competition at this semi-final stage. The famous four of ... Read more »

Joe Danger back on mobile thanks to one dad's heartfelt plea

Hello Games has remastered and re-released its Joe Danger video game for iOS; a decision prompted by a letter the studio received from a father who specifically requested it be ... Read more »

Best Buy Super Bowl TV deals are live - Sony's 65-inch OLED TV slashed by $600

Best Buy’s Super Bowl TV deals are live, which means you can snag a premium display at a record-low price so you can watch the big game in style. One ... Read more »

Google Drive locked files of few users due to AI issue

Last month, Google announced an updated policy for its cloud storage service, Google Drive. Under the new policy, the tech giant can automatically flag and restrict access to the files ... Read more »

Coming soon: Nutrition labels, but for your internet service

The FCC voted Thursday to require special notices at the point of sale for broadband service, an industry often criticized for surprise fees. Read more »

A Solution to the Faint-Sun Paradox Reveals a Narrow Window for Life

Back when the sun was 30% dimmer, Earth should have frozen solid. Yet water flowed and life blossomed. The solution to the paradox shows that we might have that faint sun to owe for life’s existence — with critical consequences for the possibility of life outside Earth. Read more »

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra could be out of stock for months

If you’re thinking of buying the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra then it might be worth making a decision as soon as it goes up for pre-order, because the phone could ... Read more »

Philips 2022 TV line-up: everything you need to know

Philips has announced its new 2022 TV line-up, and there’s a lot to sink one’s teeth into. A wide range of TVs will be made available throughout the year, including ... Read more »

Google could give free G Suite users a way out of paying for Workspace

G Suite users upset at Google’s recent move to make them pay for their office software could be in luck thanks to a potential loophole. The company recently announced that ... Read more »

13 cute Galentine's Day gifts your best friends will love

— Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission. Relationships may come and go, but best friends last forever (or ... Read more »

UBS Acquires Wealthfront for $1.4 Billion in Its Push for Young Investors

On Wednesday, Swiss bank UBS announced that it had acquired digital-investment platform Wealthfront for $1.4 billion. The bank noted that this acquisition will aid its growth ambitions in the U.S., ... Read more »

A new Crysis game is under development, confirms Crytek

Crytek, the game studio behind the graphic-heavy first person shooter series Crysis, is working on a fourth Crysis mainline game. The game developer announced it on Twitter and on ita ... Read more »

The big antivirus players could soon be in some serious trouble

The $2 billion global antivirus market may be huge, but its size doesn’t necessarily guarantee its survival, a new report has hinted. After surveying almost 1,000 U.S. adults, found ... Read more »

IBM teases next-generation Z Series mainframe

A new model of IBM’s Z Series mainframes is set to arrive later this year, the company has confirmed. Expected to arrive halfway through 2022, IBM’s z15 successor was confirmed ... Read more »

QNAP NAS devices left encrypted by Deadbolt ransomware

QNAP NAS devices across the globe have been hit by a widespread cyberattack after the DeadBolt ransomware group began to encrypt the network-attached storage devices. QNAP NAS users reported finding ... Read more »

Epic Games creates new studio to push ‘the boundaries of graphics' and Unreal Engine 5 to its limits

Epic Games is creating a new studio to make “original standalone experiences” that aim to “push the boundaries of graphics and game development forward”, according to an official blog post. ... Read more »

Tencent plans to take US-listed streaming firm DouYu private: Report

Tencent Holdings Ltd plans to take DouYu International Holdings Ltd private amid disagreements over strategy among executives at the Chinese videogame streaming firm, two people with direct knowledge of the ... Read more »

EU gives deadline to WhatsApp to clarify privacy policy change

Facebook unit WhatsApp has been given until the end of February to explain changes to its privacy policy and whether this complies with EU consumer protection laws after complaints from ... Read more »

Get Microsoft Office Home and Business on your Mac for One Low Price

Looking for ways to work smarter and be more productive in 2022? You need software that will help you stay on the cutting edge and work more seamlessly than ever. ... Read more »

3 Ways NFT Gaming Is Building New Wealth Opportunities

A new use-case for cryptocurrency is booming, particularly in parts of Asia, and it’s gaining traction in other parts of the developing world. Not only is “play-to-earn” a new source ... Read more »

Where did that sound come from?

MIT neuroscientists have developed a computer model that can answer that question as well as the human brain. Read more »

Amazon reportedly disbands the scheme that paid employees to praise the company on Twitter

E-commerce giant Amazon has shut down a controversial influence campaign in which it paid its employees to tweet nice things about the company, Financial Times reported on Thursday.Employees at the ... Read more »

Intel posts record quarter, but why analysts are not happy

Chipmaker Intel Corp posted record fourth-quarter revenue, but forecast first-quarter earnings short of Wall Street expectations, as the world’s largest chipmaker faces challenges linked to persistent global supply chain problems. ... Read more »

HP, Lenovo may be working on Chromebooks with RGB keyboard, this is what it means

HP is reportedly planning to launch a Chromebook with RGB lighting keyboard under its Omen lineup. According to a report by 9to5Google, Google has been preparing its operating system for ... Read more »

Why is crypto down so much? Uncertainty in traditional markets and Fed concerns, experts say

Over the past week, the cryptocurrency market has experienced massive drops, reaching lows not seen in months. According to CNBC, Bitcoin plunged below $33,000 on Monday, the lowest it’s been ... Read more »

Some iPhone 14 models might not have a SIM card slot

We’re expecting big changes for the iPhone 14 range, and one of those changes might affect the humble SIM card, as the iPhone 14 might not have a removable one ... Read more »

Massive AirPods deals at Amazon: Apple's AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro on sale

Amazon’s latest sale is blowing out Apple’s best-selling AirPods with fantastic deals on Apple’s best-selling earbuds. For a limited time, you can get the Apple AirPods 2 on sale for ... Read more »

This smart TV is on sale for just $200 at Amazon Canada: 'Worth every penny':

This smart TV is on sale for just $200 at Amazon Canada (Photo via Amazon) Yahoo Lifestyle Canada is committed to finding you the best products at the best prices. ... Read more »

Lamborghini speeds into NFT market with space-inspired artwork

Lamborghini’s first NFT is taking the luxury sportscar maker to space. The Italian automaker announced plans to auction off its first non-fungible token, a piece of art called Space Time ... Read more »

YouTube permanently bans Fox News host Dan Bongino for evading Covid misinformation suspension

The video giant has added more rules around Covid-19 content as the pandemic has worn on. Read more »

This new Zoom feature could save you from an embarrassing blunder

Zoom has unveiled a series of new features for its video conferencing software, one of which could prevent users from making a serious workplace faux pas. As explained in a ... Read more »

Horizon Forbidden West PS4 footage finally shared and there's nothing to worry about

To celebrate Horizon Forbidden West going gold, Sony and Guerrilla Games have finally shared footage of the PlayStation 4 version. A brief clip can be seen on YouTube via the ... Read more »

Intel Arc Alchemist GPU spotted with 12GB of VRAM

A leaked photo has shed further light on Intel’s Arc Alchemist graphics cards, and specifically the memory configuration of one of these incoming GPUs. The image, shared on Twitter by ... Read more »

Two Point Campus opens its doors in May, and launches day one on Xbox Game Pass

Sega and Two Point Studios have announced that Two Point Campus, the successor to 2018’s Two Point Hospital, will release on May 17 for consoles and PC. Not only that, ... Read more »

Demystifying machine-learning systems

A new method automatically describes, in natural language, what the individual components of a neural network do. Read more »

Google reportedly expands Android Games on Windows beta testing to more regions

Windows 11 Android support had a rocky start and after delaying the feature a couple of times Microsoft finally started testing it in the Windows Insider Preview beta. While the ... Read more »

White House expands digital regulations for U.S. water supply

The new recommendations follows similar White House initiatives for the aviation and gas pipeline sectors. Read more »

Paytm Money launches ‘Pops' messenger

One97 Communications Limited which owns digital payments and financial services platform Paytm has announced that its wholly-owned subsidiary Paytm Money has introduced “India’s first” intelligent messenger called ‘Pops’.With ‘Pops’, users ... Read more »

EU watchdog clears Facebook's purchase of Kustomer startup

The Associated PressFILE – Facebook’s Meta logo sign is seen at the company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on, Oct. 28, 2021. European Union regulators have approved Facebook parent Meta’s ... Read more »

Garena Free Fire launches special video featuring Olympic Gold medallist Neeraj Chopra

Garena has launched a special video featuring sports icon Neeraj Chopra. The Free Fire Stories Gold Edition video has Neeraj rolling back the years as he talks about his own ... Read more »
On you will find lots of free English exam practice materials to help you improve your English skills: grammar, listening, reading, writing, ielts, toeic