The Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, announced a new initiative in January 2023 to improve our understanding of respiratory viruses. The Respiratory Virus and Microbiome Initiative (RVI) will “lay the groundwork for large-scale genomic surveillance of respiratory viruses” through the Institute’s expertise and experience from the COVID-19 pandemic. It will tackle both routine surveillance of familiar viruses, such as influenza and RSV, as well as emerging pathogens. The team will be led by researchers in genomic surveillance and will work closely with partners at UKHSA and other academic institutions and health bodies. 

Genomic sequencing 

A statement from the Institute suggests that data generated will provide a “better understanding of pathogens” in the UK as well as an “early warning system for new viruses”.  

“Better understanding of which pathogen strains are in circulation will help to generate new vaccines and ensure existing ones are likely to be protective”. 

The team will “initially” establish genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, influenza, RSV, and other respiratory viruses in a “single test”. However, the “ultimate goal” is to determine all genes and all species (including viral, bacterial, and fungal) present in a single nose swab sample through a metagenomic approach. 

The techniques will use residual material from diagnostic swab samples, with results giving a “baseline of respiratory virus dynamics in the UK”. The generated viral genome dataset will be made available to the public.  

Professor Gordon Dougan, Director of Infectious Disease at Wellcome, described the “incredible opportunity to track viruses globally” presented in genomic sequencing. He believes it puts a “finger on the pulse”, and the model in the UK could become a “blueprint to strengthen virus tracking in other countries”.  

“Preventing future pandemics depends on countries around the world working together to ensure early intervention on infectious disease rise and spread.”  

Lessons from COVID-19 

Professor Susan Hopkins, Chief Medical Advisor for UKHSA, suggests that “genomic sequencing has been crucial in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic”. It will “continue to be pivotal” in facing future threats, she says.  

The work at the institute will also explore the “dynamics” of the respiratory microbiome. This will allow researchers to track AMR better. Dr Ewan Harrison, Head of the RVI, is excited to “build on the technology and methodology that has been developed for genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 during the pandemic”.  

“We aim to help answer some of the most pressing public health questions, while at the same time addressing some of the gaps in our basic knowledge about respiratory infection and health. Ultimately, we hope to contribute to global efforts to further establish pathogen genomics for routine public health and research, and as part of pandemic preparedness.” 

For more on respiratory vaccines and viruses at the World Vaccine Congress join us in Washington in April.