Learning lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic

5 September 2023


Learning lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic

At our annual conference Richard Gleave, UK Health Security Agency, and Professor Sharon Peacock, Department of Medicine, University of Cambridge, discussed the wider implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, reflecting on the success of the UK’s COVID-19 Genomics Consortium (COG-UK) in pandemic response and, more broadly, on the evolving role of scientific advice in times of public crises.

Professor Sharon Peacock directed the development of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), which from March 2020 became instrumental in the generation of SARS-CoV-2 genomes as part of the UK’s pandemic response. COG-UK delivered genomic data that proved vital in the detection of new variants as they emerged; tracking their spread; and understanding variant transmissibility, immune escape and disease severity. Read Professor Peacock's case study.

COG-UK is a consortium of NHS organisations, UK Public Health Agencies, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and academic institutions, which was created to deliver large-scale and rapid whole-genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 genome. Emphasising its ‘monumental success’ Professor Peacock explained how COG-UK had helped to manage the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK, allowing the UK to be among the first to develop a capability to generate SARS-CoV-2 genomes at scale and to use this data for public health impact.

One of the biggest challenges for COG-UK was breaking down siloes to create horizontal partnerships with other components of public health response. The way in which COG-UK worked at a systemic level – by bringing together regional sequencing hubs and public health agencies with a centralised sequencing hub at the Wellcome Sanger Institute – was key to its success. These partnerships were supported by a centralised cloud infrastructure (CLIMB) to collate genomic data, backed up by a consortium legal agreement linked to finance and data.

How can lessons learned from the pandemic response be applied to future crises?

One of the great triumphs of COG-UK was that it acted at pace and was funded at pace. Researchers had begun to get sequencing underway before addressing the bureaucratic processes involved in grant seeking, and the first report had already been sent to SAGE by the time grant funding had come through. Funding bodies contributed to this success by cutting down on bureaucracy to enable crucial research at scale and at pace. Noting that it takes longer for grants to be reviewed in a post-COVID climate, Professor Peacock highlighted the need for funding research that could prove crucial in the future, and questioned whether the funding processes that took place during the pandemic could be made permanent.

Being prepared and ready within the scope of emergencies and public crises, and putting into practice some of the lessons learned from the pandemic could prevent future crises. However, although early detection (facilitated by centralised data-gathering and real-time data analysis processes) is crucial in any emergency, creating urgency about a ‘slow timescale’ crisis – such as the climate crisis – could be difficult.

What can COG-UK teach us more broadly about how public health and microbiology can be funded?

Public health agencies in the UK have dropped from 54 to less than 5 over time and it is important to determine the scope of different agencies and NHS labs to enable them to work together, effectively communicate with each other, and share data. Investing in a broad range of disciplines in order to facilitate an interdisciplinary response to public crises could prove crucial in the future.

You can listen to the full discussion here:

Richard Gleave

UK Health Security Agency

Professor Sharon Peacock

Churchill College, Cambridge