The global response to COVID-19 variants during the current pandemic has highlighted the need for open scientific collaboration. Providing training tools to help countries establish or expand their own SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance programme can play a key role in strengthening pandemic preparedness for ongoing and future global outbreaks.
As viruses spread, they mutate and become variants of their original form. This means that the discovery of new COVID-19 variants, as early as possible as they start to spread through a community, is important for global public health.
So how do we get one step ahead of these mutating viruses? Enter genomic sequencing, which can provide early identification of mutations that may lead to a virus becoming more infectious or causing more severe disease. It allows for data to be collected to inform public health interventions, as well as the development of further diagnostic tools and therapeutics. Crucially, it also provides us with valuable intelligence needed to tailor vaccines as the pandemic progresses.
When it comes to maximising the benefits of using genomic sequencing as part of a public health response, a collaborative approach that transcends borders is essential. An excellent example of this was provided when the world was alerted to the Omicron variant by researchers in South Africa. Sharing of information in a timely manner provided insight to the rest of the world in terms of how Omicron differed from previous variants, and enabled others to closely monitor its spread in real time.
To gain a head start on the next variant of concern – or the beginnings of a future pandemic from another pathogen – we need more ‘watchers on the wall’. This means that more scientists in more countries need to be doing more sequencing. One way this can be achieved is through increased access to training and resources for scientists to upskill and become more involved in genomic sequencing.
This global need was the driving force behind the launch of our COG-Train programme – a free, international educational initiative that provides open-access learning in SARS-CoV-2 genomics – in partnership with Wellcome Connecting Science (WCS). COG-Train training courses are developed and run in close partnership with numerous international researchers as well as members of the COG-UK consortium. Drawing international experts, COG-Train promotes knowledge sharing of the different approaches, challenges and successes of SARS-CoV-2 sequencing across the world. COG-Train is delivering five free online training courses via the FutureLearn platform as well as shorter week long virtual courses, train the trainer modules, sequencing workshops and remotely accessed classrooms with blended learning.
The training programmes have been designed for individual scientists, research teams and countries that seek to establish or expand their own SARS-CoV-2 genome sequencing programme and sequencing knowledge. Participants have the opportunity to share best practices that underpin the establishment of a national-scale sequencing network, and deepen their knowledge of sampling, data sharing and linkage, operations, information governance and integration with public health agencies.
Our first course launched in February and welcomed almost 2400 learners from 130 countries across the globe. This course is now closed, but content and resources from this course will be added to the COG-Train webpages in due course. Our second course ‘From Swab to Server: Sampling, Sequencing and Testing During a Pandemic’ will launch in early May.
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