Using data to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic

Published: 21/09/2021

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, scientists have been collecting and analysing large amounts of data relating to virus and patient genetics, to help to tackle the disease. Data has been fundamental to identifying patients at risk, devising treatments and tracking coronavirus spread and the development of new variants.

Patient data
Researchers have studied the genetics of Covid-19 patients to understand why the disease affects some more seriously than others and pinpoint potential treatments. They identified 13 DNA variations associated with patients developing the most severe form of Covid-19.

They compared genetic data from almost 50,000 Covid-19 patients with that of healthy volunteers. By pooling large amounts of data, scientists in the Covid-19 Host Genetics Initiative, a global collaboration involving more than 3,300 researchers and 61 studies across 25 countries, were able to produce robust analyses more quickly, and from a greater diversity of populations, than any one group could have done on its own.

Dr Kenneth Baillie, Academic Consultant in Critical Care Medicine and scientist at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, said “By working together across the whole world, we are able to accelerate discovery for the benefit of patients.”

A related study, led by the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Genetics and Cancer and the Roslin Institute, asked people who have used DNA home tests, such as Ancestry DNA or 23andMe, to contribute their data. The team aims to identify genes that influence the risk of developing Covid-19 or that affect disease severity, by comparing volunteers’ symptoms – or lack of them – with their DNA.

Another study, led by Imperial College London and the Universities of Edinburgh and Liverpool, analysed blood from more than 500 Covid-19 patients across the UK. Patients with severe Covid-19 have been found to show increased levels of a key protein in their blood. This information could help to identify patients at risk in early stages of disease and provide a target for new treatments.

The work involved the International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium (ISARIC), the ISARIC4C (Coronavirus Clinical Characterisation Consortium) network and more than 200 hospitals collecting data from Covid-19 patients.

Factors such as smoking and high body mass index also cause patients to suffer from acute Covid-19, a study involving Roslin researchers reported.

Data for tracking spread
Coronavirus genetic data from patients and wastewater can be used to identify virus variants and to track spread. This can be combined with data on vaccine uptake per region, number of cases and surveys, to help to inform government decisions.

A Covid-19 early warning system could prevent future lockdowns in Scotland by combining data on vaccination, wastewater samples and surveys. Scientists will forecast the pandemic’s trajectory, enabling identification of potential hotspots early, predict stresses on hospitals, and create more focused access to vaccines. The project, led by the Roslin Institute, is a partnership between the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and Scottish Water.

Professor Rowland Kao, Chair of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science at the Roslin Institute, said: “This partnership aims to identify strategies to show localised Covid-19 outbreaks, by rapidly identifying them and introducing local control measures such as surge testing and intensive contact tracing. A key to this is to understand how the numbers of people being vaccinated may vary geographically, as any local clusters with larger numbers of unprotected individuals could drive local outbreaks. In a winter where resources will also be strained by flu and other seasonal infections, controlling those outbreaks, if they occur, could be crucial to avoiding further lockdowns.”
Previous studies led by Roslin scientists compared the virus’ genetic makeup in different areas of Scotland and combined this with models of virus incidence, distribution and spread. They found that the autumn 2020 wave of the Covid-19 pandemic mostly originated outside Scotland, namely from Europe or other parts of the UK.

The evidence has been collated by Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK), a partnership of NHS organisations, UK Public Health Agencies, Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 academic partners, led by the University of Cambridge.
Dr Samantha Lycett, lead author of the Scottish study from the Roslin Institute, said: “Data from the genetic code of the virus collected from Covid-19 patients allows us to quantify the number of coronavirus introductions in Scotland and understand spread from one region to another. As part of the COG-UK consortium, we feed this information to the Scottish Government.”

Researchers continue to make valuable discoveries in understanding Covid-19 and contribute to tracking and managing the disease. For updates, please visit the Roslin Covid-19 research webpage.

The experts will also be part of the ONE Health panel at our annual data conference on Sep 30, book your place here.

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