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British scientists plan to expand genomic sequencing from COVID to flu

Genomic sequencing allowed the world to track new coronavirus variants throughout the pandemic. Now British researchers plan to use it to better understand a host of other respiratory pathogens, from influenza to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

The work is aimed at shedding more light on known threats and, potentially, emerging ones, the team at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, working with the UK Health Security Agency, said.

The world has never had access to the kind of real-time information for these viruses that scientists obtained on SARS-CoV-2 through sequencing millions of genomes, Ewan Harrison, head of the new Respiratory Virus and Microbiome Initiative, told reporters on Monday.

That includes granular detail on how they transmit as well as how they evolve in the face of the human immune response.

"We hope that by expanding our ability to sequence these viruses routinely, we can build upon the work that's going on COVID, and hopefully supercharge research efforts to understand the transmission of these viruses, but also to help develop new treatments and vaccines," Harrison said.

The aim is to make genomic surveillance of this type the norm, to inform public health responses, and act as a blueprint for other countries that want to do the same thing, he said.

The work will begin later this year by using leftover material from swabs taken for COVID-19 diagnostic purposes, sequencing SARS-CoV-2, influenza, RSV, and other common respiratory viruses in a combined process.

While some of the viruses targeted typically cause mild, cold-like symptoms, others can cause serious illness, particularly in vulnerable populations.

Cases of COVID-19, flu, and RSV have all surged this winter in the northern hemisphere in a so-called "tripledemic" that is putting serious pressure on hospitals in a number of countries.

The team said that, in the future, the initiative could answer questions about outbreaks like this.

It also aims to sequence everything found in a single nose swab, including the viral, bacterial, and fungal species present and how they change during infection.

The five-year initiative aims to begin work in spring this year and is funded by Wellcome.