University of Glasgow leads COVID-19 research response in Scotland


The University of Glasgow is at the heart of COVID-19 research response in Scotland and the UK. Covid-19 is a new disease in humans, caused by a member of the coronavirus family of viruses. Thought to have originated in bats, it was first recorded in humans in China in late 2019, and can cause a fever, cough and breathing problems. Experts currently think around 80% of cases are mild, however a small portion of infected people go on to have complications such as pneumonia, and require a period of hospitalisation.

So far, it has spread to most countries around the world, and has already affected more than 300,000 people, and tens of thousands in the UK. The WHO currently estimate the death rate at 3.4%, however scientists believe the real mortality rate may be lower as there is evidence that not everyone with mild forms of the disease have been tested.

Scientists at the University are currently working on a number of vital COVID-19 related research projects, including treatment, virus behaviour, health complications and the wider effects of the pandemic on society.

The MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR) is working in partnership with colleagues across the UK on a range of research areas related to the new coronavirus, including working closely with colleagues in Public Health England to understand linkages across the UK in an effort to shut down ongoing transmission in real-time. Research areas include fundamental studies to understand the nature of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus which causes COVID-19, genomic sequencing and bioinformatics analyses of the virus from patient samples, and the identification of potential therapies.

The University of Glasgow is also hosting a major COVID-19 testing centre at our Clinical Innovation Zone at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital campus. The Lighthouse Lab in Glasgow, officially opened on 22 April and is made possible by collaboration and support from Scottish and UK Governments, NHS, industry partners and with the help of over 500 staff volunteers.

Key University of Glasgow COVID-19 response include:

On the 23 March the CVR was named as one of 13 key centres in a pan-UK alliance of scientists, working on COVID-19 whole genome sequencing. One of only two facilities involved in Scotland, the CVR will play a key role in the new £20m COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium. The consortium is backed by the government and the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser and is comprised of the NHS, Public Health Agencies, The Wellcome Sanger Institute, and 13 academic institutions, including the University of Glasgow.
The CVR will use its labs to sequence the genome of the virus from confirmed Scottish patients, and work with partners to map how COVID-19 spreads and behaves in populations around the UK. It is hoped that the genetic code could arm public health agencies and clinicians with a unique, cutting-edge tool to combat COVID-19.

The Scottish Government awarded the University of Glasgow more than £1m to carry out nine COVID-19 rapid response research projects, on areas such as underlying health conditions, treatments and wider pandemic effects.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with Wellcome and Mastercard, awarded the University of Glasgow and the University of Dundee £225,000 to rapidly screen for potential COVID-19 treatments.

The CVR has also been announced as playing a key role in new COVID-19 scientific project, led by the University of Edinburgh which has received £4.9m of rapid response government funding to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Senior researchers at the CVR have contributed to a new public website for those interested in the science of COVID-19 – making their expertise relevant to the current coronavirus outbreak available to the general public.

Professor Massimo Palmarini, Director of the CVR, said: “The CVR and its scientists are at the centre of Scotland’s – and the UK’s – response to the current coronavirus outbreak. As the largest group of virologists in the UK with the facilities to handle samples from infected patients, we are well placed to conduct pivotal research into emerging diseases such as COVID-19.

“In the coming weeks and months, our scientists will continue to work in collaboration with NHS Scotland, sequencing the virus, as well as conducting further research into SARS-CoV-2, its mechanisms of action and potential therapies.”

In early March 2020, CVR scientists working in partnership with the NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde West of Scotland Specialist Virology Centre, rapidly sequenced the virus from the first COVID-19 patient confirmed in Scotland.

Professor Emma Thomson, Dr Ana Da Silva Filipe and a team of scientists at the Centre, will continue to rapidly sequence SARS-CoV-2 virus from COVID-19 samples obtained from patients, from across Scotland, as long as the outbreak lasts. This genomic information will be made publically available immediately following sequencing and genomic analysis.

The rapid sequencing of COVID-19 samples is essential to further research into the virus. Scientists from around the world are able to extract information from the genetic code – or blueprint – of this new coronavirus, that will ultimately help the creation of vaccines.

Dr Ana Filipe, Head of the CVR’s Viral Genomics facility who led the efforts to rapidly sequence this virus said: “The rapid turnaround of the sample and interpretation of the data was only possible due to excellent coordination between clinicians, diagnostic labs, and research partners. These collaborations are critically important to ensuring an effective response to outbreaks like this. Equally important is the trend of open sharing of reagents and protocols amongst researchers and the public sharing of sequencing data, which has been a defining feature of the response to recent viral epidemics”.

Speaking in the media recently, Professor Emma Thomson said: “We know that we need to respond rapidly to this outbreak, which is why this laboratory has taken the decision to prioritise efforts to sequence and understand this virus.”

The CVR is also a partner in the International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium (ISARIC), while Dr Antonia Ho – a Clinical Senior Lecturer at the CVR and Honorary Consultant in Infectious Diseases – is currently coordinating the recruitment of Scottish patients to the ISARIC UK Clinical Characterisation Protocol., The study aims to answer urgent questions on how to treat patients and control the outbreak in the UK. CVR will act as the repository for samples from patients recruited to this protocol in Scotland, and will undertake full genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 from these samples.

Dr Ho said: “This coronavirus is a new virus, to which none of us have prior immunity to. Therefore, most of the UK population are susceptible. It appears to be very infectious – much more so than flu – as evident by the high number of healthcare workers that have been infected.

“We should be worried but there is no need to panic. For the UK public, frequent handwashing, good cough and sneezing etiquette, avoid touching your face and close contact with anyone who appear unwell remains the key measures to avoid infection. Furthermore, keep up-to-date with evolving FCO travel advice and Government advice, look after vulnerable family members and friends, and ensure you are up-to-date with vaccinations.”

The CVR is also working to develop a toolbox of reagents that will help current and future studies of this virus. This includes a partnership with the MRC Phosphorylation Unit at the University of Dundee to generate antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. All of these reagents will be made available to the research community.

The MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR) was established in 2010 and represents the UK’s largest grouping of human and veterinary virologists. The CVR is embedded within the Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation at the University of Glasgow which provides excellent research opportunities to investigate virus-host interactions and immune response to virus infection. The Centre is funded by the Medical Research Council, the UK’s leading publicly funded biomedical research organisation, and by a variety of other funding bodies including the Wellcome Trust, the BBSRC, EU and others.