Dr Ewan Harrison is a HDR UK (UKRI Innovation) fellow at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (part of HDR UK Cambridge). Prior to COVID-19, his fellowship focused on the biology of the pathogenic bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause breathing problems and skin infections. The emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of this bacterium, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a worldwide problem in clinical medicine. In particular, he aimed to understand why some people persistently have Staphylococcus aureus in their nose whereas others are less likely to.

Ewan had developed ways of working to enable he and his team to collect the nasal bacteria of many many people around the UK, and look in detail at the DNA of the bacterium, as well as the health of the people that carry it. The approaches he and his team have developed can also be applied to the virus that causes COVID-19, which can also live in our noses.

Ewan has been redeployed to the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, as the scientific project manager. The project aims to decode all the genetic information in samples from patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19. Examining the whole virus genome will enable scientists to monitor changes at a national scale. Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance said: “Genomic sequencing will help us understand COVID-19 and its spread. It can also help guide treatments in the future and see the impact of interventions”. The research is designed to inform clinical care, will help monitor the effectiveness of interventions and ultimately is designed to save lives.

This £20 million national alliance is led by Professor Sharon Peacock, chair of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge and director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England. Professor John Danesh, HDR UK’s Research Director for the Understanding Causes of Disease national priority, will serve on the consortium’s steering committee. The project is led by The University of Cambridge and the Wellcome Sanger Institute and it brings together the NHS, public health agencies, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and academics institutions including the University of Cambridge. Large-scale, rapid sequencing of the virus will be carried out at centres currently include facilities in Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford and Sheffield. The information gained will then be shared with hospitals, regional NHS centres and the government.