Friday 21 August 2020

The group's research response to COVID-19

This is an update on the group's research response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As an infectious disease group we have been keen to contribute to the international research effort where we could be useful, while recognising the need to continue our research on other important infections where possible.

  • Bugbank. Thanks to a pre-existing collaboration between our group, Public Health England and UK Biobank, we were in a position to help rapidly facilitate COVID-19 research via SARS-CoV-2 PCR-based swab test results. Beginning mid-March, we worked to provide regular (usually weekly) updates of tests results, which were made available to all UK Biobank researchers beginning April 17th. This is one of several resources on COVID-19 linked to UK Biobank. Beginning in May we provided feeds to other cohorts: INTERVAL, COMPARE, Genes & Health and the NIHR BioResource. We provide updates on this work through the project website We have published a paper describing the dynamic data linkage in Microbial Genomics (press release). Key collaborators in this project are Jacob Armstrong (Big Data Institute) Naomi Allen (UK Biobank) and David Wyllie and Anne Marie O'Connell (Public Health England).

  • Epidemiological risk factors for COVID-19. Graduate student Nicolas Arning and I are developing an approach to quantify the effects of lifestyle and medical risk factors for COVID-19 in the UK Biobank that accounts for inherent uncertainty in which risk factors to consider. The new method employs the harmonic mean p-value, a model-averaging approach for big data that we published previously. We are in the process of evaluating the performance of the approach, comparing it to machine learning, and interpreting the results.

  • Antibody testing for the UK Government. Postdoc Justine Rudkin has been working in the lab with Derrick Crook, Sir John Bell and others to measure the efficacy of antibody tests for the UK Government. They have tested many hundreds of kits to establish the sensitivity and specificity of the tests to help evaluate the utility of a national testing programme. This work was crucial in demonstrating the limitations of early blood-spot based tests, and the credibility of subsequent generations of antibody tests. The work has been published in Wellcome Open Research.

Work on other infections that has continued during the lockdown. Postdoc Sarah Earle continues research into pathogen genetic risk factors for diseases including tuberculosis and meningococcal meningitis, while Steven Lin has continued to pursue work on hepatitis C virus genetics and epidemiology. Many of our close collaborators are infection doctors and they have of course been recalled to clinical duties. Laboratory work in the group has been severely disrupted, particularly several of Justine's Staphylococcus aureus projects. We are keen to pick up on those projects where we left off when the chance arrives.

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