University of GlasgowOn the front line against Covid

On the front line against Covid

As the world woke up to the threat of a new virus in early 2020, the University of Glasgow’s renowned Centre for Virus Research made a radical and abrupt pivot to focus its research efforts on meeting the challenge.

The Centre for Virus Research (CVR) played a crucial role in the UK's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and its advanced virology capability led to the award of a prestigious Queen's Anniversary Prize in 2021.

In January 2020, as reports of a novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China, were circulating around the world, the CVR's Dr Antonia Ho and Professor David L Robertson were preparing to publish some of the first analysis of the new virus. Until then, Dr Ho’s primary research focus had been the clinical epidemiology of influenza and other respiratory viral infections in the UK and sub-Saharan Africa. “In early 2020," she says, "my focus quickly shifted to SARS-CoV-2, and I started working together with other academic institutions and alongside the NHS, sharing resources and data."

While many were still largely oblivious, the CVR was rapidly redirecting all its efforts to focus on the new coronavirus. CVR scientists were among a select group on the front foot of the biggest global health event in generations.

“As the largest group of virologists in the UK with the facilities to handle samples from infected patients, the CVR was always best placed to react quickly and conduct pivotal research into COVID-19,” says Professor Massimo Palmarini, Director of the CVR.

The CVR’s genomic sequencing of the virus, led by Dr Ana da Silva Filipe, the head of CVR Genomics, included the first COVID-19 patient confirmed in Scotland, enabling researchers to extract key genetic information linking the origins of the infection with a known case in Italy.

A study led by Professor of Infectious Diseases, Emma Thomson, supported by various partners, showed that the virus was introduced into Scotland at least 300 times in the first month of the outbreak.

"We knew we needed to respond rapidly to the outbreak," says Professor Thomson who, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, had been ‘hunting’ for new viruses in Uganda. "This is why the CVR took the decision to prioritise efforts to sequence and better understand this virus.”

The impact made by the CVR in the last two years has been significant and includes:

  • World-leading studies on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, led by Professor David Robertson and colleagues
  • the opening of a £2.5 million COVID-19 drugs screening hub to discover potential new treatments
  • a virus ‘toolkit’ to share information with the scientific community
  • seminal studies on how our innate immunity fights the virus, led by Professor Sam Wilson
  • Dr Antonia Ho’s role as partner in the International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium.

Professor Palmarini believes COVID-19 will continue to be researched into the future. “Our international reputation put us at the forefront of COVID-19 efforts," he says, "and while SARS-CoV-2 will remain a focus for some time yet, our research will continue to encompass advancing understanding of a wide range of viruses, how they emerge and move from animals to humans, and how they enter and spread through communities and cause disease.”

Images by Jane Barlow PA 

Brought to you by