U.K. Health Security Agency unveils five-year pathogen genomics strategy

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The U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has unveiled a five-year plan to make pathogen genomics central to protecting public health and combating infectious disease threats.

The Agency said that its Pathogen Genomics Strategy will help shape investment to deliver improvements in key areas such as diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics, enabling a “more targeted and efficient response to infectious diseases.”

The UKHSA, which is responsible for protecting public health in the U.K., pledged to deliver a “nationally coordinated, scaled-up pathogen genomics service,” and collaborate with industry, health, and academic bodies.

“We will work with companies who develop sequencing technologies, bioinformatic tools, diagnostic platforms to leverage resources and support the U.K. ambition to enhance productivity across the economy,” says the strategy document.

The strategy is intended to set the direction for investment in pathogen genomics and outline strategic aims in response to infectious public health threats, although it does not specify what resources will be made available.

It pledges to transform the genomics workforce, develop consensus on genomic data standards, and ensure that pathogen genomic data is shared quickly and fully with the global public health community and researchers.

Pathogen genomics involves examining the genetic material of microorganisms that cause diseases. Pathogen sequencing and genomic analysis can identify harmful mutations or variations in a pathogen compared to known strains, allowing detection of drug resistance or other characteristics.

Information gleaned from genetics proved critical during the COVID-19 pandemic for detecting and controlling outbreaks and adapting public health responses as SARS-CoV-2 evolved. Genomics has also helped identify foodborne outbreaks, assess the risk from emerging pathogens like mpox and influenza and inform the choice of treatment for diseases like tuberculosis.

“Moving forward, our priority in UKHSA is to integrate genomics into every aspect of infectious disease control, prioritizing the areas of vaccine-preventable disease, emerging infections and antimicrobial resistance. These are areas in which pathogen genomics has the potential to yield substantial measurable benefits in health security,” said UKHSA chief medical advisor Professor Susan Hopkins in the strategy document.

“Implementing our genomics strategy will require investment in our workforce, laboratories, data, and analytics capabilities and collaboration with the NHS, academia, and industry,” she added.

The UKHSA said the U.K. had submitted over three million SARS-CoV-2 sequences to the international GISAID data science initiative over the course of the COVID pandemic, a quarter of the global total and more than any other nation except for the U.S. 

The agency aims to “integrate genomics into everyday public health decision-making,” linking pathogen genomic data to epidemiological data and incorporating it into clinical and public health systems.

“We will use pathogen genomic data to understand the extent and evolution of antimicrobial resistance, enabling more effective treatments to be targeted to patients and informing future drug development,” it said.

Applying pathogen genomics to vaccine-preventable diseases is intended to inform vaccine development and deployment, support the identification and interruption of disease transmission chains, and ultimately contribute to improved vaccine efficacy and enhanced population immunity.

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