Genomics England Chief Scientist, Professor Sir Mark Caulfield, recently joined BBC Radio 4 to discuss the progress of the GenOMICC COVID-19 study.
Genomics England announced in May that they were partnering with the GenOMICC consortium to sequence whole genomes from 20,000 people who have been severely affected by COVID-19, i.e. requiring admission to intensive care. The study plans to compare these genomes to 15,000 whole genomes from those only mildly affected, i.e. not requiring hospitalisation or asymptomatic, to identify potential genetic factors that may influence variation in symptom severity.
Professor Sir Mark Caulfield joined presenter Mishal Husain on BBC Radio 4 last week to discuss the current progress of the study, having recently reached a milestone of 3,000 volunteers and 1,000 whole genomes sequenced.
Although the study has only just commenced, Caulfield seems optimistic about its potential as during the interview, he shared examples of other analyses where genetic variation has been seen to influence susceptibility to severe infection. In particular, he spoke of a genome-wide association study published in the New England Journal which identified a gene cluster on chromosome 3 (3p21.31) as a susceptibility locus in patients with COVID-19 respiratory failure. Caulfield expressed that these types of analyses provide “huge hope” that we will be able to identify both rare and common variants that impact our ability to fight coronavirus infection.
To fully understand the complexity of the virus and its symptom variation, Caulfield highlighted the necessity for more individuals to volunteer to participate in the study and help reach their target of 20,000 severely affected and 15,000 mild or asymptomatic individuals. He encouraged listeners to register for the study, stating that if they were eligible, they would only be required to give a blood sample.
When questioned about the use of this work, Caulfield replied:
“[We’re teaming] up with every study the government have funded in this area to try and maximise how many people engage and that will give us a chance of understanding new biology and it may identify new therapies for those at risk.”