Global coronavirus research and innovation network launched

Selective focus of a transparent petri dish

A new global coronavirus research and innovation network has launched to bring together researchers from animal and human coronavirus communities.

The network has been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The network is to enhance our knowledge of this important virus family to inform preparedness and response strategies for future outbreaks.

The UK International Coronavirus Network (UK-ICN), with £500,000 funding over four years, will provide and support global coordination for the delivery of collaborative scientific research and a sustained long term One Health approach. This is to enhance investigation and understanding of coronaviruses.

The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed the urgency to advance the knowledge and understanding of the biology of coronaviruses that infect both animals and humans, embracing the need for a One Health approach.

Global collaborative effort

This is a joint partnership between:

  • University of Liverpool
  • Animal and Plant Health Agency
  • The Roslin Institute
  • University of Edinburgh
  • The Pirbright Institute
  • University of Cambridge.

It will bring together researchers and partners from all over the world, including:

  • China
  • India
  • North America
  • Europe
  • Southeast Asia
  • Africa. 

Scientific scope of the network

Drawing on major global research and industry players, who are working on veterinary and human coronaviruses, the network will facilitate research collaborations to further the understanding of coronaviruses in the fields of:

  • virology
  • pathogenesis
  • genotypic markers of phenotype
  • transmission
  • immunity.

According to current global and UK funding data, there is a major gap in understanding the transmission of coronaviruses from animals to humans and between animal species.

To bridge this gap, the network will bring together experts to analyse gaps and identify research priorities to better understand interactions amongst animals, humans and the environment in order to prevent future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.

Embracing the One Health approach, the UK-ICN will draw on a range of expertise from different sectors, such as public health, animal health, and the environment. This is to comparatively assess animal and human coronavirus biology and streamline data integration of animal and human coronaviruses to further the understanding of:

  • pathogen biology to include, for example: seasonality, transmission, ecology and evolution
  • host response
  • effective intervention strategies.

Animal-human interface

BBSRC’s Executive Chair, Professor Melanie Welham, said:

The animal-human interface remains a key and understudied research gap in the current pandemic. Understanding interactions between animals and humans and the environment is critical in preventing future zoonotic outbreaks.

This new global network will draw together the major global research and industry players working on veterinary and human coronaviruses to compare, contrast and advance the understanding of coronaviruses.

It will help us prepare for future outbreaks of animal and human coronaviruses as well as potential zoonotic spillover events.

Improving coordination

UK Chief Veterinary Officer, Christine Middlemiss, said:

Events of the past year have been provided a stark demonstration of the damage diseases originating in animals can cause.

The UK-ICN will help us to advance our understanding of coronavirus biology and, using a One Health approach, will enable us to improve how we coordinate research, data and expertise in both human, animal and environmental health on a global scale.

Defra Chief Scientific Adviser, Gideon Henderson, said:

No single country can tackle the global problems posed by coronaviruses and other pandemic threats in isolation. So, international scientific partnerships are essential to bring the world’s experts together to improve understanding of coronaviruses.

The UK-ICN will place the UK at the forefront of global efforts to advance our knowledge and develop new tools for tackling coronaviruses in animals and people.

Learning from past diagnostics

The UK-ICN will be led by Professor Julian Hiscox, from the Institute of Infection, Veterinary and Ecological Science and the Pandemic Institute, University of Liverpool, who said:

We are delighted to work with BBSRC and DEFRA in achieving the vision of a One Health internationally focused coronavirus network. We have seen with animal coronaviruses that they do not respect geographical or political borders, and neither does SARS-CoV-2.

The decades of research on diagnostics and vaccines to animal coronaviruses has lots to teach in terms of dealing with severe coronavirus pandemics both in the present day and preparing for Disease X in the future.

Top image:  Credit: yacobchuk / Getty Images

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