On Thursday 14th October 2021, members from across the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium came together to share their experiences as part of the collective sequencing effort that has been a key element of the UK pandemic response.
The event, called COG-UK Together, was not a standard scientific meeting, but rather saw members discussing not only the scientific achievements of their teams but also the human stories underpinning the monumental work carried out.
Coinciding with the transition of routine SARS-CoV-2 sequencing, and the consortium’s move to refocus on research, data linkage and delivering training, the event marked the turning of the page at the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.
As you will see from the recordings, COG-UK Together was not only interesting and enjoyable, but often surprisingly emotional.
Originally envisaged as a grand ball to mark the incredible work undertaken by members, when it came time to organise the event, it was clear that assembling people from across the consortium at a single venue would be both logistically challenging but also problematic in terms of limiting COVID-19 risks.
As such, the planning committee opted for a “distributed in-person” model, with members having the option either to join online only, or to attend in person at a handful of regional hub sites. Such a model was not only the most practical approach on the day, but also reflected much about the way that the consortium functions, with a hub and spoke model for sequencing mixed with remote working outside of the labs.
COG-UK Together was marked by four in-person hubs (North East England, Northern Ireland, Central England, and East & South England) and two online hubs (Scotland and Wales). Across the six hubs, and including those joining online, the event was attended by more than 250 members.
While hubs were careful to ensure that suitable measures were in place to reduce transmission risk as far as possible, importantly they allowed members who had been working closely together over the course of the pandemic to meet in-person, often for the first time.
The day’s events began with all hubs and online attendees joined together by Zoom for a quick welcome from the organisers before the consortium’s Executive Director and Chair, Professor Sharon Peacock, delivered a keynote address, summarising the beginnings of the consortium, different phases of the work undertaken during the past 18 months, and highlighting the achievements and impact of COG-UK.
Following the keynote address, session one proceeded with talks designed to highlight different aspects of the vital work underpinning consortium sequencing efforts. Topics covered included: national and local views on the mammoth logistical operations connecting sample testing labs and sequencing sites; the work to adapt and develop protocols for sequencing SARS-CoV-2 at increasing scale and speed; the establishment of pipelines to wrangle unprecedented volumes of viral genome data and link with other data sets; and the development of a range of vital bioinformatic tools to interpret and analyse the genomic data generated.
After a pause for lunch, and a chance to relax and meet with colleagues, session two consisted of breakout sessions, with each of the hubs designing programmes to highlight and reflect on the contributions of local members and institutions. Some hubs opted for a series of presentations, and others for more relaxed discussions. However, each breakout session comprised a mix of science and personal experience, and more than a dash of creativity.
The final session focused on recognition of consortium members’ incredible efforts. First was the Unsung Hero awards: a roll call of individuals and teams nominated by their colleagues for making vital, important and underappreciated contributions. All individuals and teams nominated subsequently received certificates confirming their unsung hero status, although as noted on the day, everyone involved in the consortium have been heroic in all manner of ways.
Second was a series of interviews with world-class experts in the fields of virology and pathogen genomics who provided an external view of the achievements and endeavours of COG-UK. These individuals understand what it takes to stand up genomic surveillance at the scale and speed of COG-UK, and their praise and support carries substantial weight.
Recordings from COG-UK Together are now available for all to see. Across the many hours of recordings, a number of themes reoccur. Viewers will be able to see stories of the slog and graft; the long and often gruelling schedules; occasional dramatic cross-country dashes to grab equipment or samples; the push to deliver ever more genomes, ever faster; the sacrifice of personal and family time.
Importantly, viewers will get a clear sense of the impact and legacy of the consortium, at both the national and international level. They will hear how the consortium succeeded owing to the coming together of more than 600 dedicated individuals who each played their own part, whether in sampling, logistics, sequencing, data handling, tool development, analysis, communicating outputs, administration, management or oversight. All are vital cogs in the consortium’s success.