Sarah Neville in London
The UK will offer its genomics expertise to other countries to help spot and contain new strains of Covid-19, the government will announce on Tuesday.
The world has been struggling with the emergence of several mutations in the disease, at least one of which, B.1.1.7, is believed to be both more transmissible and potentially more deadly. The discovery of the new strains has also prompted urgent investigations to check that existing vaccines will still work against them.
A “new variant assessment platform” will work directly on samples provided from overseas, or provide expert advice and support remotely “where the partner country already has some capabilities in this area but requests further assistance”, the health department said.
The offer could include training and resources as well as personnel and equipment.
Isabel Oliver, director of Public Health England’s National Infection Service, said genomic testing was crucial to efforts to control the virus and respond before it was too late.
The new initiative would bring PHE’s “cutting edge science to countries that have little or no ability to sequence and analyse COVID-19 virus strains themselves”, and provide crucial early warning of new variants emerging around the world that might endanger the UK, Dr Oliver added.
The UK has carried out more than half of all SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences submitted to the global database, according to the health department. Scientists working for Public Health England were the first to identify B.1.1.7 when it emerged last year in Kent.
Matt Hancock, health secretary, said the UK initiative, which comes as the country prepares to assume the presidency of the G7, will “help us better understand this virus and how it spreads and will also boost global capacity to understand Coronavirus, so we’re all better prepared for whatever lies ahead”.