Testing Lab Data Reveals Spread of New Covid Variant

Scientists at the Alderley Park Lighthouse Lab in Cheshire have revealed the speed and scale at which the new variant of the COVID virus is spreading through communities across the country.

The Lighthouse, operated by Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC) and launched last April, plays a key role in the UK Government’s national COVID testing programme. It can process more than 50,000 samples a day and has recently completed its 6 millionth test.

Its scientists have identified the new COVID variant in the lab’s PCR test and have been able to use this new science to track the spread of the new COVID variant across England and Wales.

The ThermoFisher PCR test, used at many of the Lighthouse Lab sites, measures 3 genetic markers of SARS-CoV-2.  Lighthouse scientists have shown that the new variant exhibits ‘S-gene dropout’, whereby one of the markers – the S-gene – fails to amplify, but the other two genetic markers (ORF1ab and N) are found, confirming a positive COVID result.

Working with ThermoFisher, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and PHE teams, the Lighthouse Lab network first noted data trends in November.

The Lighthouse data shows the rise and geographical distribution of these S-gene target dropout cases from the 1st to the 21st of December 2020. The data shows rapidly increasing numbers of cases of the new variant across London, East-South East, parts of the North West, South West regions and West Midlands.

Areas with the highest incidence in the study correlate with areas now reporting high NHS load and hospitalisation. This dramatic timeline view validates the national level of concern, concurrent with the imposition of the recent lockdown. Ongoing vigilance of the data may also indicate regions that in future will see high infection and hospitalisation rates.

Professor Chris Molloy, CEO of MDC and founding director of the Lighthouse Lab network believes it demonstrates the quality of the science that underpins what is the largest diagnostics project in UK history.

Prof. Chris Molloy, said:

“Today’s high-quality data from the MDC Lighthouse team shows the excellence of its science at a national scale.  The Lighthouses are high-powered beacons into the darkness of this disease, combining industrial scientific rigour and close coordination with NHS and PHE in the service of the nation.”

Dr Mark Wigglesworth, Site Director at the Alderley Park Lighthouse Lab and senior author of the report, comments:

“Although the speed of the spread is shocking, we’re working really closely with the government to share our scientific discoveries and advancements, which in-turn informs decision making across the devolved nations, so that we can be in the best position to beat the virus.

“While a new national lockdown is not what anyone would have wanted, our scientists’ work in discovering the spread of the new variant will be pivotal in informing government policy, protecting the NHS and saving lives.”

For more information on the findings, read the paper at medRxiv >