Public Health England (PHE) has today announced the first group of countries who will receive genomic sequencing support through the New Variant Assessment Platform (NVAP).

The NVAP was announced in January by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) as a means for the UK to offer support to countries that lack the capability and capacity to effectively identify, assess and track new SARS-CoV-2 variants among their population.

The platform was developed by PHE in April and will be taken forward by the new UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). It will enable the UK’s unique sequencing and variant assessment capabilities to support other countries’ response to coronavirus (COVID-19), strengthening global health security and protecting people here and abroad.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said:

The UK is a science superpower and it is right that we share our expertise in the global fight against COVID-19.

I welcome this partnership with Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Singapore and the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention to identify, track and respond to new COVID-19 variants and future health threats globally. No one is safe until we are all safe.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, around a third of all SARS-CoV-2 sequences submitted to the international GISAID database have been from the UK – we are the second largest contributor globally.

The first countries to benefit from this support and expertise will be Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

The support for each country is bespoke, but includes reagents and equipment to increase in-country sequencing, technical advice, bioinformatics support, and training.

Plans are also in development for the UK to collaborate with both the African Centre for Disease Control in Ethiopia, and Singapore.

A technical advisor will be deployed to Ethiopia to provide expertise and guidance on genomic sequencing strategy and policy across the continent.

The collaboration being developed with Singapore is still being finalised, but potential areas include supporting countries in the South East Asia region, with scientific expertise and technical advice on bioinformatics and variant analysis. The focus would be on leveraging existing structures to strengthen and expand sequencing capacity across the region. 

Additional countries will receive support as the programme continues.

Dr Isabel Oliver, Director of the PHE National infection Service, said:

We are very pleased to be able to extend this support to the rest of the international community. By cooperating on genomic sequencing with partners around the world, we can help to strengthen the response to the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe as well as at home.

Robust systems of genomic surveillance will be vital to making sure that new variants of SARS-CoV-2 can be identified rapidly and controlled wherever they arise, and the NVAP will ensure that we are able to work effectively with international partners to make the international response is as strong as it possibly can be.

Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UKHSA, said:

Strong surveillance is vital to controlling the transmission of the virus and international co-operation is crucial in developing a system that works to protect all of us.

The NVAP will provide valuable support to many international public health colleagues to strengthen their genomic sequencing capability, which in turn will make us all safer. New SARS-CoV-2 variants are a major threat and it is important to remember that in a global pandemic, no country is safe until all countries are safe.

PHE has already sequenced samples from a number of countries who have requested support including Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Albania, and this programme will be extended in the coming weeks as we receive more requests for assistance.

The NVAP will also support countries to assess variants as they emerge, to better understand their characteristics and enable public health actions to be implemented.

Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid said:

As we learn to live with COVID-19, we cannot underestimate the threat new variants could pose.

This ground-breaking genomics work – building on the phenomenal genomics expertise in the UK – will allow our global partners to identify variant cases of COVID-19 and support us all to future-proof our way of life by preventing potential pandemics in the years ahead.

We are working arm-in-arm with nations to tackle this global pandemic, helping us all return to normality as quickly as possible by saving lives and protecting livelihoods.

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