Crick researchers join UK-wide projects to tackle infections

Three Crick researchers are to be co-investigators on two multimillion-pound studies designed to unlock our understanding of viruses and how the immune system reacts to different challenges, with a focus on COVID-19.

This funding is awarded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of its Tackling Infections strategic theme. Each study group will receive £8million.

Emma Wall, Senior Clinical Research Fellow at the Crick and consultant in Infectious Diseases at UCLH, and Nicola Lewis, Director of the Worldwide Influenza Centre at the Crick, are co-investigators on PROVAC: a project on selecting vaccine strains that provide the best possible protection against SARS-CoV-2 for the UK population. They will work with Wendy Barclay and Paul Kellam from Imperial College London, and project lead, Derek Smith at the University of Cambridge.

David LV Bauer, Group Leader of the RNA Virus Replication Laboratory at the Crick, will be a co-investigator on the G2P2 virology consortium, focused on continuous monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 variants, led by Wendy Barclay at Imperial College London.

Smart vaccine strain selection to provide the best possible protection

The team of researchers in the PROVAC consortium will aim to enhance the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine strain selection process, to provide the best possible protection for the UK population. Researchers will use a range of data on how human immunity is shaping the direction of SARS-CoV-2 evolution, to predict future variants and measure immune responses against these future variants. This will enable researchers to better design next-generation vaccines.

Continual monitoring and updating of vaccines is necessary to protect those at high risk of complications from COVID-19 as the virus evolves.

The team will use data on immune responses to new variants and after vaccines from participants in the Legacy study, which is a collaboration between University College London Hospitals (UCLH) Biomedical Research Centre and the Crick. They’ll track how immunity to SARS-CoV-2 is evolving in healthy adults, and provide the basis to model the changing pressures on viral evolution.

Emma Wall said: “It is clear that COVID is evolving fast, and is staying with us. We need to use everything we know so far about this virus to be smarter and get ahead of evolution for next-generation vaccine design. This project builds on the work we have been doing to track how we respond to COVID-19 vaccines in the UCLH-Crick Legacy study.”

Keeping pace with SARS-CoV-2 variants

The G2P2 virology consortium will aim to keep pace with the continually evolving variants of SARS-CoV-2, and explore the biological mechanisms that are driving this evolution. The project will track how genetic changes emerging in the virus affect the severity of the illness it causes, the range of cell types it can infect, how well it can evade the immune system and how it is transmitted between animals or humans.  

This work will provide an evidence base to inform whether updates to current vaccines are needed and inform changes in policy based on changes in risk to population health.

Researchers at the Crick will assess in mice and hamsters how the severity of COVID-19 changes as new variants arise, and aim to identify the precise changes in the virus’s genome that drive this change. They will also examine how SARS-CoV-2 evolves in animals which have a weakened immune system.

David LV Bauer said: “Gaining a better understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and how it causes disease will allow us to quickly risk-assess new variants as they emerge in the coming years — and understanding how these new variants might evolve will be key towards targeting vaccination and treatment strategies in the future.”

Tackling infections

Research into tackling infections will bolster our national defence and response capabilities by tackling infectious diseases that pose threats to people, livestock, crops and natural resources in more integrated and innovative ways. This will mean we’re better prepared for potential epidemics and can more effectively tackle antimicrobial resistance.

Dr Stephen Oakeshott, MRC Head of Infections and Immunity said: “UKRI’s Tackling Infections programme aims to harness research and innovation to fight against the threats posed by infectious diseases.

“These UK wide partnerships will build on the research legacy from our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing the UK’s leading experts to deepen our understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 might evolve and how we might protect against future variants.

“We are committed to helping the country be better prepared for future pandemics and this important work will provide important insight for public health and illuminate a pathway for next-generation vaccine development.”

Maria Caulfield, Minister for Vaccines and Public Health, said: “As we continue to learn from the pandemic, creating the next generation of vaccines is crucial to protecting the most vulnerable and managing future threats.

“These projects will enhance our understanding of infectious diseases, including Covid, and how our bodies react to equip us with the best tools to fight back.”

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