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St George’s taking part in real-time Covid-19 sequencing study to prevent spread in hospitals

Published: 25 March 2021

An illustration of a coronavirus cell.

Researchers and clinicians at St George’s, University of London and St George’s Hospital are working together to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in hospitals.

As part of a national study, led by UCL, the team are using rapid sequencing to understand transmission within hospitals and put additional measures in place to control the virus.

“We want to reduce hospital transmission as much as we possibly can,” says Dr Cassie Pope, consultant clinical scientist and principal investigator on the study at St George’s Hospital. She explains that while Covid-19 can be detected using rapid PCR tests, these don’t give information about whether the cases are connected. “Using sequencing, we can see if there are links and how it might be spreading on the wards,” she adds.

By assessing the genetic data from each sample, the team can compare this against other samples they have collected to see if they closely match any of the sequences already taken. This information is then compiled into a report, which is given to the infection control team to see if the cases appear to be being passed on by other patients on the ward, clinicians moving between wards or from somewhere else.  

The study team hope that by including screening in regular practice, the infection control team will be able to identify transmission of the virus, which they previously might not have realised. With results from the screening available within 48 hours, they will then be able to take additional measures to manage any outbreaks in real-time. Measures to control the spread could include closing wards, making sure staff go home when sick, and enhanced cleaning regimens – actions that are already taken when required.

The screening process will also help to uncover if any new or rare variants arise in the hospital – providing a better means of being able to identify these strains and prevent transmission.

The team have already sequenced more than 1,000 samples, creating a library of sequences to compare any new results to. Speaking on the successes so far, Dr Tim Planche, clinical director of South West London Pathology and senior lecturer at St George’s, University of London, says, “This project is a really good example of the University and Trust working together hand in hand. Once you have a permanent system of sequencing in place in the building, you can then set up a lot of studies and services to help patients.

“If we can show this works with the samples we have already collected, then we can do it for other infections like HIV, bacterial resistance, norovirus and MRSA as well.”

By working together, the team have managed to draw on the expertise of both institutions on site to bring about positive and effective change for patients and staff at St George’s. If the results show that sequencing can be used to help manage infection control, the findings could then be used to inform best practice in hospitals across the UK, further preventing the spread of Covid-19 and other transmissible diseases in future.

The study team consists of: Dr Adam Witney, Dr Irene Monahan and Dr Ken Laing at St George’s, University of London, and Dr Cassie Pope, Josh Taylor, NgeeKeong Tan, Claudia Cardoso-Pereira and the infection control nurses at St George’s Hospital.

This work extends a portfolio of research at St George’s to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. The University has launched a Coronavirus Action Fund to raise money for vital research into the pandemic and is actively seeking support for a broad research programme involving all parts of the University.

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