The scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium has played an important part, marks a period in history that will be reflected upon for years to come. COG-UK is involved in several initiatives to document the history of the consortium while memories are still fresh; charting the path from formation, through impacts on the pandemic response, to the legacy for pathogen genomic surveillance in the UK and beyond.
When living through a remarkable event, it can be difficult to imagine how it will be seen with future eyes. Contemporary historians, however, try to maintain a broad view. In the spring of 2021 medical historian Dr Lara Marks contacted COG-UK with a proposal to capture the story of the consortium from as many of its members as possible. Lara is interested in collecting memories; “I was fascinated by the role genomics was playing in the pandemic and how COG-UK had been formed at breakneck speed and under extreme pressure, building on the UK’s strength in sequencing and public health. I felt it was a story that needed to be told, and that waiting any longer would risk the loss of valuable memories and documents.”
Lara’s project is now underway and after recording interviews with consortium members and collecting relevant documents, this material will be curated into a permanent free online exhibition to tell the story of the COG-UK consortium, with an expected release date of late 2022. This exhibition will be hosted on WhatisBiotechnology.org, a charitable educational resource that brings together stories of the people, places and science behind biomedical advances. Set up with MRC seed funding in 2013, the site now gets over 1.8 million page views a year. Many of its visitors are school and university students as well as scientists, industry experts and policy makers. The COG-UK exhibition will be an important supplement to two of Lara’s other successful online exhibitions, the first being ‘The path to DNA sequencing: The life and work of Frederick Sanger’ and the other being ‘The history of antimicrobial resistance and scientists’ struggles to overcome the problem’.
The “NHS Voices of COVID-19” project is also seeking to preserve memories from the pandemic. Based on the successful “NHS at 70” oral history programme at the University of Manchester, the aim is to record the impact of COVID-19 on the lives of people across the four nations of the UK, and for the recordings to be preserved as a permanent public resource in the British Library. In late 2021, Professor Sharon Peacock, Executive Director and Chair of COG-UK, recorded an interview for the project based on the work of the COG-UK consortium. This interview will sit alongside more than 2,500 other collected interviews, including an interview with the doctor who treated the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, for COVID-19. Excerpts from the interviews conducted so far are available on the project website.
When these projects were first proposed, COG-UK readily agreed to get involved. As Professor Peacock noted “the coming together of the pathogen genomics community to provide genomic data, tools and research in service of the UK pandemic response is an amazing achievement and I am thrilled to support any efforts to record and document the contribution of COG-UK consortium members”.
Digital Record Keeping
In addition to preserving the memories and testimonies of consortium members, several initiatives are seeking to collate digital records and physical materials relating to the pandemic response. For example, the British Library have begun archiving the COG-UK consortium website as part of their Coronavirus (COVID-19) UK collection. This initiative is part of the UK Web Archive, which was established in 2004 to collect and permanently preserve websites representing different aspects of UK heritage and important global events. By 2019, the archive had amassed 727TB of data, distributed between four storage nodes in St Pancras, Boston Spa, Aberystwyth and Edinburgh. The archive takes monthly copies of key websites to safeguard historical information that may only be available online and may change from time to time, sometimes disappearing entirely.
London’s Science Museum has been undertaking a project called “Collecting COVID-19”, to research and collect materials about the medical, public health, industrial and scientific responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The project is set up to capture materials reflecting the critical output of the international scientific and medical communities in the face of a public health emergency. The curators aim to create a permanent record that will allow future generations to reflect on, learn from and be inspired by the events of pandemic life, whether extraordinary or every day. The types of items the museum have in mind include “mass produced glassware with scribbled labels, messages on whiteboards, PPE and safety signs, computers, servers and samples”. While these objects may seem mundane, they could hold significance for future visitors, allowing them to encounter and be inspired by the scientific research that shaped their lives, and those of their forebears, in ways that we cannot yet fully comprehend. In particular, the curators are keen to capture the humanity behind the science by collecting objects that may seem only tangentially linked to scientific endeavours, the “lucky socks, favourite mugs or mascots” deemed vital to success in the lab. Invitations have been sent to COG-UK consortium members asking them to put aside any materials which may be of interest to the Science Museum’s collection.
Together, these complementary archives of memories, materials and artifacts will provide an important resource for future generations interested in the UK’s scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With these projects underway, the focus of the COG-UK consortium is on the more immediate future and delivering our three strategic objectives. These are linkage of extensive and diverse COVID-19 related datasets (including viral and human genomes) followed by novel analyses that seek new information about the disease process and prediction of patient outcomes; open access, on-line training on SARS-CoV-2 sequencing; and research into new methods to detect and elucidate circulating and emerging pathogens. All three work themes will support current efforts, as well as responses to future infectious threats. These priorities would not be possible without one important legacy of COG-UK, the expertise, can-do attitude and collaborative skills of our consortium members.